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A proof of quality

Study includes Brazil in the ranking of the countries that most carry out relevant research

Until recently, the efforts of Brazilian researchers to publish their works and to expand their importance in international science could be measured by means of quantitative data. It was known, for example, that 1981 and 2000 the number of scientific articles from Brazil published in international indexed publications more than quadrupled (the number leapt up from 2,600 to over 12,000) – and Brazil, today, responds for about 1.5% of the planet’s research. A study published in the July 15 issue of the British magazine Nature provided an unprecedented indicator of the quality of Brazilian research – with very heartening results.

Signed by David King, a professor from Cambridge University and the main scientific advisor to the United Kingdom government, the study The scientific impact of nations did a particular analysis of the articles published in the course of eight years on the Thomson ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) database. The database indexes over 8,000 strictly selected scientific newspapers and magazines, referring to 164 areas of knowledge, which shows the vigor of each country’s research activity. King perused only the cream of these articles: the 1% most cited in other articles and publications in the period from 1993 to 2001. This criterion assesses the repercussion achieved by a scientific work, and is regarded as trustworthy for gauging its importance. The more the articles are cited, the more they are converted into referential data.

The result of the analysis by King took the form of a ranking of the 31 countries that produce 97.5% of the researches most cited on the planet. In it, Brazil appears in an honorable 23rd place. The country had a hundred articles published amongst the most important, in the period from 1993 to 1997, and expanded this participation to 188 articles in the following period, from 1997 to 2001. “It’s a sign that the quality of our research has really improved”, says Rogério Meneghini, the research coordinator of the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS), a student of scientometry, an area of research that seeks to generate information to stimulate overcoming the challenges of science.

When the total of the works published is assessed, the results from Brazil are also very noteworthy. The country published 27,874 articles on the Thomson ISI database between 1993 and 1997 (0.84% of the total), and 43,971 articles in the period from 1997 to 2001 (1.21% of the total). Between the two periods assessed in the study, Brazil was overtaken by South Korea, which, with the mark of 55,739 publications from 1997 to 2001, produced more than twice the number of the previous period. But it overtook countries like Poland, Denmark and Finland, although these three continue ahead in the ranking of the articles most cited.

Stranger in the nest
The eight leading countries produce 84.5% of the scientific production accounted for in the ranking of the most cited articles. They are, in order, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy, and Switzerland. The nine following countries are responsible for 13% of the articles (Holland, Australia, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Israel, Russia and Finland). They are small nations, many of them with a high degree of human development, and that manage to keep up an investment in technological innovations – the stranger in this nest is the giant Russia, which is still suffering from the pains of going into the capitalist world. Brazil is in the third squad of nations, a group that accounts for 2.5% of the citations.

The country features in 23rd place in the ranking, behind Austria, China, South Korea, Poland and India, and ahead of Taiwan, Ireland, Greece, Singapore, Portugal, South Africa (the only African country in the ranking), Iran (the only Islamic nation), and Luxembourg.At first sight, it may seem a place without any prominence – but this impression does not resist a deeper analysis. The essential fact is that Brazil is included in the ranking of the 31 most significant countries for science on the planet. No other Latin American country is part of this list, not even nations like Argentina and Mexico, with a tradition in research, and Nobel prizes in their baggage. They are part of the fourth and last squad, which agglomerates all the other 162 countries of the planet. These nations divide the remaining 2.5% of then most cited articles and stayed outside David King’s ranking. The importance of each one of them in the world scientific production only becomes visible after one or two decimal places.

Another necessary consideration concerns Brazil’s evolution in these indicators. The country’s position in the ranking is one of rude growth. The figures published in Nature show the production of the 31 countries at two moments – from 1993 to 1997 and from 1997 to 2001. As already seen, a comparison of the two periods shows that Brazil’s performance has shown a quality leap. There were 188 articles amongst those most cited from 1997 to 2001 (or 0.5% of the total), against one hundred in the previous period (0.29%).

In spite of the ample advantage over the other countries, the United States had its relative space in the ranking discretely reduced, from 65.6% in the first period to 62.7% in the most recent once, a space occupied, in good measure, by countries from the European Union. The performance of a club of emerging countries in research, in which Brazil participates, also calls attention. Other examples are South Korea, which leapt from 97 articles amongst those most cited between 1993 and 1997 to 294 in the following period; China (a jump from 153 citations to a level of 375), and India (jumping from 112 to 205).

“In the case of countries like Brazil, where production is growing strongly, the effects of adding together figures from five years hide some important things. To be sure, the Brazilian figures for 2001 are far better than for 1997”, claims the rector of the State University of Campinas, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, a former president of FAPESP. The ranking does not spell out the research vocations of each country, nor does it point out the areas connected with the published articles. In the case of Brazil, it can be inferred that some fields of knowledge had specific weight in the improved performance. Genomic research is certainly one of them.

A recent analysis, carried out by Rogério Meneghini, showed that the number of articles on genomic research published by Brazilians in indexed international scientific publications grew 72.4% between 1998 and 2003. The number of citations also grew. The conclusion of the sequencing of the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, which was reported on the cover of the Nature magazine in July 2000, has now added up to 200 citations, according to Meneghini’s reckoning. The sequencing and the comparison of the genomes of another two bacteria, Xanthomonas citri and Xanthomonas campestri, also published by Nature, had a good repercussion amongst researchers and enjoyed 60 citations. The greater part of the Brazilian publications in this area is related to the researches carried out by the Organization for Sequencing and Analyzing Nucleotides (Onsa), sponsored by FAPESP.

The objective of David King’s study, besides, of course, scrutinizing the performance of the United Kingdom, was to measure the quality gap that separates the researches from the developed countries from those of the developing countries. The British researcher found, with concern, that this abyss is still more noteworthy than the indications of spending on science in each nation lead one to suppose. The richest countries, he observes, are consolidating their lead in relation to the rest of the world. China, Brazil, India, and South Korea, thanks to investments made in the last decade, are honorable exceptions in this panorama.

Mentioning specifically the cases of China and India, the English researcher says that the ranking of citations of articles is insufficient to show the full dimension of the advances achieved. “The main scientific centers of India form a critical mass of quality that has made notable contributions to the development of the country”, he wrote. In relation to China, he praised the investments made in research infrastructure that attracted back to the country researchers who went to specialize abroad.

King claims that sustainable economic development calls for a more effective commitment to the generation of knowledge. He notes that “even modest advances in health, sanitation, food, and transports require competencies in engineering, technology, medicine, economics, and social sciences, greater than those that many countries have succeeded in attaining”. And he concludes: “The vicious circles of poverty and dependence will only be broken through collaboration in the construction of competencies between countries of greater and lesser scientific vigor”.