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.