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The scientific productivity of several developing countries has increased significantly over the past decade as a result of political support for science and heavy investment in their research infrastructure, according to an international study of scientific outputs published this week.
Chinese scientists, for example, increased their output of scientific publications from 69,000 to 115,000 articles between the two four-year periods 1993-1997 and 1997-2001, and more than doubled their share of the papers that are most highly cited in the scientific literature.
Brazil also saw its scientific output rise significantly — increasing its share of the world's scientific publications from 0.84 to 1.21 per cent during this period — and, together with India and South Africa, also saw a significant increase in its share of the most highly-cited papers.
In absolute terms, however, the gap between the developed and most of the developing world in high-quality scientific output remains enormous.
These four nations (plus Iran) are the only developing country representatives among 31 countries that produce 97.5 per cent of the world's most widely cited scientific papers. In stark contrast, the world's remaining 162 countries contribute less than 2.5 per cent of the total.
These figures are contained in an article on the scientific impact of nations published in this week's issue of Nature by David King, head of the UK Office of Science and Technology, and chief scientific adviser to the British government.
The main focus of the article is on the comparative performance of the world's major science producing countries. The assessment is based on scientific output as measured firstly by the overall number of papers published in established scientific journals, and secondly by the relative contribution of these countries to those papers that have made the most impact on the scientific community.
King's analysis shows, for example, that there has been a significant increase in scientific output in Europe over the past decade in both absolute and relative terms. As a result, the scientific papers produced by the 15 nations of the European Union increased by from 36.6 to 39.3 of the world's total between the two successive four-year periods.
This was accompanied by an even greater increase — from 32.8 to 37.5 per cent — in Europe's contribution to the top one per cent of highly cited scientific papers. In contrast, the overall output of US scientists fell from 52.3 to 49.4 per cent over the same period, and their contribution to the top papers also dropped, from 65.6 to 62.8 per cent.
Even the leading developing countries have a long way to go before demonstrating a similar performance. Thus despite its massive investment in science and the size of its population, papers produced by Chinese scientists only represented 1.56 per cent of those cited by other scientists by the end of this period — about the same rate as those produced by scientists in Belgium.
Nevertheless, according to King, the strong upward trend in the publication records of countries such as Brazil, China and India reflects well on the significant investment that each of these three countries has been making in research over the past decade.
"It is important to note that simple citation rankings can hide important developments in [such] countries," he writes. "India's major science institutes have significant strengths, produce high-quality graduates and have made critical contributions to the country's sustained economic growth."
He also praises the way that Chinese universities have maintained high scientific standards. And he points out that improved investment in research infrastructure and training have attracted back scientists who have trained and worked abroad, and sustained the fastest economic growth in the world.
"National science outputs have not yet had a chance to catch up with these developments," says King. At the same time, however, he points out that the wide gap between the main science-producing nations and the rest of the world have political implications "that are difficult to exaggerate".
King says that his statistics demonstrate that "sustainable economic development in highly competitive world markets requires a direct engagement in the generation of knowledge".
He states that "even modest improvements in healthcare, clean water, sanitation, food and transport need capabilities in engineering, technology, medicine, business, economics and social science beyond many countries reach".
And he concludes: "The cycles of poverty and dependence will only be broken by [collaboration on] capacity-building between nations of high and low science intensity".
Reference: Nature 430, 311 (2004)