Which nation’s scientific output is rising fastest?

China, you might say, but you’d be wrong, according to a study of world rankings in science published recently by the UK government (latest DTI study into the outputs and outcomes from UK science – 920 kB PDF). This looks at a variety of input and output measures to construct a fairly complete picture of the distribution of scientific activity and impact around the world. Notwithstanding the surprising answer to my trick question (revealed at the end of this post), this report confirms the rapid growth of China as scientific power, the lessening of the formerly unchallenged dominance of the USA, and (from a parochial perspective) the rather strong performance of the UK, which spends less on research and has fewer researchers than its competitors, but nonetheless in comparison produces proportionately more science with a greater impact.

It’s in spending on science research that the rise of China is most obvious – in real terms (adjusted for purchasing power parity) China’s research spend has increased four-fold in the last decade; it now exceeds that of all other individual countries except USA and Japan, and has reached half the European Union total. In terms of output of scientific publications, China now has a 5% world share, up by a factor of three in the last decade, and now greater than France. Again, in terms of individual nations the USA still leads by this output measure, with almost exactly one third of world output, but the European Union nations taken together have now outstripped the USA, with 37.9% of publications. The UK, at just less than 9%, is the second placed individual nation, having recently overtaken Japan. If we took the Asia-Pacific group of China, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore together they would account for 10% of world output.

What about quality and impact? Here the USA still has a clear lead; taking as a measure of world impact the share of the most highly cited papers (taken as the top 1% in each discipline) puts the USA in the lead with 61%, while the UK outperforms its volume share with 13% of highly cited papers. China still underperforms on this measure but the gap is closing, and is likely to close further as citation counts are a lagging indicator – it takes some years for spending on science to translate, first into publication outputs, and only later into citations of those papers by other workers.

The country whose output of scientific publications has increased the most over the last decade is Iran, whose output has increased by a factor of ten, albeit from a low base (China’s increased by a factor of three, the second fastest rate of growth). It will be interesting to see, in the light of recent political developments, whether Iran’s good performance will continue.

11 thoughts on “Which nation’s scientific output is rising fastest?”

  1. One has to remember that Iran used to be a huge country called “Persia,” before the Brits divvied it up into many fractions (and shafted most of the “persians” – installing a boy king, getting very favorable oil contracts, etc.) that currently form many monarchical/dictatorial states! As a matter of fact, Persia contributed much to the ancient science and technological developments (at least comparable to many other civilizations). Unfortunately, Iran has been ruled, for the last 26 years, by religiously fanatical oligarchs. Iran still has a significant weeapon in its arsenal – oil, which means money. While money cannot buy everything, but as evident from UAE, money can surely buy a lot of things including science and technology. Nowhere is it more evident than in Singapore! From what I understand, Iran is on the prowl for nanotechnologies, nanotechnologists, and nanoscientists. Has anyone heard anything in this regard?

    What bothers me is that we are worried about Iran’s possessing “nuclear” weapons. Nan is much more potent in that it encompasses everything- biological, chemical, and nuclear (NBC) weapons.

    The problem, as I see it, is that we (i. e. western countries, especially the USA – my beloved home) mess with other countries for the sake of expediency – supporting the Shah Pahlavi and Mujaihaideen (Afghan war) with all the latest American “gadgets,” which come back to haunt us

    Let us keep our hands to ourselves and focus on education our kids! If we do not, the we are going to be a third-world country in no time!


  2. Nanoguru, the British did many undesirable things in the Middle East but I don’t think dismembering Persia was one of them – as far as I remember the parts of historical Persia that have been taken away were in the Caucasus, to Russia, and in Afghanistan. It was the Arab parts of the old Ottoman empire that suffered from Britain’s statemaking efforts. But you are right, in spite of nominal independence the British and Americans exerted a great deal of influence on Iran, the ousting of Mossadeq in a CIA coup being only the most visible event in this regard. See my comments on TNTlog for my thoughts on the effect of the current political situation on the prospects for Iranian science. Incidentally, I was invited to Iran for a nanotechnology conference last year, but I was unable to go because of a prior commitment. Otherwise I would be able to comment with more personal knowledge on their nanotechnology program.

  3. Indeed history shows that Iran has been among the greatest nations in the world. Iran’s scientific and philosophical contributions to human civilisation have been significant. Such contributions can be observed in Iran’s ancient history (its pre-Islamic eras) as well as during dark-ages in Europe which eventually is called glorious ages in the world of Islamic nations, including Iran (essentially, IIX-XII centuries), but unfortunately it declined towards the medieval centuries due to so many historical events.
    Being a proud Iranian from Azerbaijan (non-Persian-turks of Iran), I don’t like the comment made by Nano Guru. Let’s not associate Iranian’s past achievements to a particular Iranian race. Iranians has always called themselves Iranians (inside Iran), although the term ‘Iran’ officially introduced to the International community only recently (in the 1930s). Demography of Iran as a collective nation shows that this country has always been a multinational and multicultural country. These notions (i.e., multi nationalism and multiculturalism) are recent concepts in the Western countries, but in Iran it has been deeply understood. Persian Chauvinism (which Guru’s comments fuel it) has always been an unwelcome western conception about Iran and among Iranians. It tries to show a superiority of the largest Iranian minority (i.e., the Persians) to the rest of Iranians. Those who are familiar with the contemporary history of Iran will know that this conception about Iran and Iranians was introduced by those Europeans who were seeking their decent ancestors in the horizon of history and came across glorious ancient Iranian and Indian civilisations (associated with a race of human, called Ariyans, which the name Iran comes from that). They found a snap shot of the world’s history, which interested them and paused there!
    Such racist/chauvinist thoughts have already made a lot of damage to the Middle East. A British plot to help to replace an Iranian-Turkic dynasty (Qajars) with a Persian dynasty (Pahlavis) is one such damage (One should acknowledge that most of the Iranian dynasties after Islam have been undeniably Turkic, while the name of the country reserved as Iran). British wanted to destroy all the influence and fantastic contribution of Azerbaijanis Turks during a nation-wide democratic movement of so-called ‘constitutional revolution’. And I am afraid they succeeded, but not knowing that their man (Reza Shah) could not be a good puppet for them. The westerners wrong diplomacy and interventions (particularly, the US and UK) have been very damaging in the Middle East (this the most mysterious part of the world, the ‘cradle of civilisation’). I am glad Richard Johns mentioned about USA’s (the first) imperialistic intervention in other nation’s affairs (that was in Iran, where CIA undertook a nasty coup d’état and removed Iranian’s very young, but substantially precious, parliamentary democracy of Dr. Mossaddegh’s government and replaced it with a dictatorship). Some American has admitted this as the ugliest face of American’s diplomacy (During Bill Clinton, the US administration even apologised for what they did to Iran and I loved that). Those who know the history of Middle East, it just becomes ridiculous, when Goerge W. Bush talks about establishment of democracy in Middle East!!
    I am glad that this research shows that Iran has the fastest growing scientific activity. I also believe the nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is the right of Iran and any other country in the world, although I don’t like Ahmadi-nejad’s diplomacy. I preferred this could be managed by a reformist successor of president Khatami.
    Anyway, the main purpose of my contribution to this debate was to emphasise that, when one says “Iranians”, this includes Persians, Turks (Azerbaijanians), Kurds, Arabs, Gilakis&Mazanis, Lors, Balouches, and other minorities. None of these are majority, but as the official national language, Persian is spoken by majority.

  4. dear Nano GURU ,
    As an Iranian i have to inform you that Iran was never called persia ;it HAS ALWAYS BEEN IRAN.persia was the
    name of one of the first tribes who came to iran ,and a province in iran even nowadays and the adjacent gulf to that province.

    dear Richard,
    Afghanistan was dismembered by the British,Bahrain as well and also parts of Iraq .DO YOU LIKE US TO DISMEMBER OXFORD AND LONDON AND THEN SAY RUSSIANS DID IT?

  5. mayhar, please read what I wrote. I said that Britain did many undesirable things in the Middle East. I would certainly include in that its occupation of Afghanistan and aspects of its record in Mesopotamia and the Gulf. All I was saying was that to my knowledge it did not, in fact, dismember Iran, though it certainly interfered in its internal politics in regrettable ways.

  6. As a condensed matter researcher in iran I would like to add few comments to elucidate some issues about which you may have only guessing tools at hand. So far nano-technology in iran has been only a terminology to talk about it, and for influential researchers to get some grants based on it to continue their earlier non-nano research! I beleive the reason these initial struggles has not produced remarkable results is that, still we have not recognized that nano-technology needs an entirely different language, namely “nano-sciene”. The scale of 100 nano-meters is where quantum and classical concepts meet. Therefore we need new concepts to address this realm of matter; we need a new sceience and new tools to describe this strange regime. This point has been appreciated in Pacific region. I see a massive rise in matter based science in the east of Asia (no western scientist can deny that highest quality samples for experiments are produced in Japan, and hence their papers carry many japanese names at the end!). Our struggle is to join this massive rise up of matterials science in Asia. (After all, west has been top in science long enough! Time is coming for the scientific prosperity to stay a few centuries in the east.)

  7. Reza, sorry that your comment got held up so long. Thank you for that, I didn’t appreciate fully the importance of non-Persian minorities in Iranian history.
    sa. jafari, I agree that the period of western dominance over science is coming to an end. Since I believe that science is generally a force for the global good, I think this is a good thing, and I wish you well in your efforts.

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