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Evolving science

Study analyzes changes in world scientific production and shows that the gap between rich and emerging countries has narrowed in some areas

A study conducted by researchers in England and published in the journal Scientometrics suggests that the scientific output of both rich and developing countries has seen a number of changes in the past 30 years that have not been captured by general indicators. The study, authored by Slavo Radosevic and Esin Yoruk, professors at University College London (UCL), indicates that the ranking held by certain groups of research fields in the total number of papers published by countries in several regions of the world changed between the 1980s and 2000, preparing some countries for new challenges and creating disadvantages for others (see illustration). The North American bloc consisting of the United States and Canada lost relative share in both number of papers and number of citations in the so-called applied sciences (such as computer science and engineering), but retained its prominence in life sciences and social sciences. Western Europe gained ground in applied sciences during that same period, while the Middle Eastern countries took a step backward in social sciences.

“New scientific areas bring with them new opportunities for growth and connection with other, previously established fields,” says Slavo Radosevic. “Countries are constantly struggling with the ongoing dilemma between supporting scientific excellence in long-established fields, and at the same following new trends and ensuring the relevance of their science systems in emerging fields.” The study also shows that quantity and quality of scientific production do not always follow parallel trajectories. Latin America, for example, lost share in the world total of papers published in applied sciences, but retained its ranking in citations. Asia lost relative share in citations for papers in life sciences—approaching the historically poor performance in number of papers in that field.

To arrive at these conclusions, the authors of the paper examined data on number of papers published and number of citations received in all areas of knowledge between 1981 and 2011 for several regions of the world. The data were culled from Thomson Reuters’ National Science Indicators. Then the researchers focused on each region’s performance in 21 fields, divided into four areas: life sciences, basic sciences, social sciences and applied sciences. “The field profile is historically entrenched, and little has changed over the course of the decades,” Radosevic notes. Nevertheless, the expanding practice of scientific collaboration had a major impact on the performance of emerging countries such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). “They began to participate more in world scientific activity,” he says.

In Latin America, Radosevic points out, Brazil and Argentina performed well in the life sciences as a result of policies aimed at incentivizing research in that area. The region was also able to beat the average world growth in number of publications in basic sciences and engineering. The good performance of Asia in fields of technology such as materials engineering, he observes, has been influenced by investments made in recent years by China and South Korea. “The significant increase in scientific activity in China could bring it scientific leadership in applied sciences,” he comments.

According to Radosevic, in order for countries such as Brazil and China to assume leadership ranking in the future, their scientific output will need to generate knowledge that contributes to economic growth. He cites the example of the former Soviet Union, which always gave special preference to the basic sciences. After the end of the Communist regime in the region, basic research continued to flourish because of the internationally recognized scientific strengths of those countries, which began to collaborate with the West. But a continued focus on the basic sciences without making any advances in applied fields holds little promise in terms of economics, he believes.

Radosevic explains that North America and part of Europe are specializing in life sciences—a field of knowledge that is growing in importance. “The field profile tends to change as new areas of knowledge emerge and gain momentum, as is true today for the life sciences and was true for physics in the past,” he says. Over a 30-year period, only one region has become strong in a field in which it previously had a low profile: since 2001 the 15 countries of the original European Union (EU15) have gained advantage in number of citations in life sciences and applied sciences.

032-035_Prod cientifica_222-2“The increased advantage of European countries in life sciences could be the result of the growth of clinical medicine in continental Europe,” says Peter Schulz, a professor at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute of the University of Campinas (Unicamp), who in 2012 also published a paper in Scientometrics on the evolution of the science and technology system profiles of several countries (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 198). In that study, Schulz and Professor Edmilson Manganote, also at Unicamp, showed that the United States and the United Kingdom follow very similar field patterns, in which medicine accounts for one-quarter of scientific output. The countries of continental Europe show a different distribution, with a slightly higher share of physics and chemistry, and medicine ranging from 18% (Spain) to 30% (Austria).

To verify these regional changes in field profile, the authors of the paper used a system known as Revealed Comparative Advantage (RCA), developed in the 1990s to assess countries’ performance in terms of number of papers published. When the RCA is higher than 1, the region is strong in a given field. When it is lower than 1, it has performed below the average of all countries. The problem is that the RCA considers only the qualitative aspect and ignores citations. The group therefore developed two new coefficients: index of revealed comparative advantage for published papers (RCAPAP) and index of revealed comparative advantage for citations (RCACIT). “The study succeeds in making that distinction, showing changes in publications and citations side by side. Viewed in isolation, they can give a false impression of a region’s performance,” Schulz points out.

Radosevic says it was necessary to make the distinction between quantity and quality in the field profile in order to identify which regions of the world produce more cutting-edge science. Regions with high publication indices but relatively low impact, such as Latin America and Asia, are characterized by a greater capacity to absorb knowledge using models developed in other countries. The regions with higher citation indices are the ones that are on the knowledge frontier.

Science performed in developing countries is also generally characterized by the capacity to absorb knowledge produced in other regions. There are nuances, to be sure. Latin America, for example, has modest performance in the publication of papers in basic science, but it has always enjoyed an advantage in that field in number of citations, which indicates the quality of papers published. But, the paper says, the centers that produce cutting-edge knowledge—those that produce high-impact science—remain the same as they have been historically: the countries of North America and Europe.

As new actors have advanced, North America has lost relative ground in science globally over the years. Today, that bloc accounts for 51% of citations; in the 1980s, the figure was 61%. The decline has not affected the relative impact of research in the region, which remained stable at 1.40 in the 1980s and 1990s and climbed to 1.45 in the 2000s. Relative impact is the ratio between the indices of citations and published papers. Latin America, Asia and the Middle East show shared trajectories: a considerable increase in the number of published papers, along with more moderate growth in the number of citations, but impact indices that remain low but stable.

Unlike North America, Europe showed growth in number of published papers and in citations. The former Soviet Union’s share in global science underwent considerable change after the end of the Communist regime. Between 1981 and 1989, it accounted for 7% of papers published worldwide, and 1.2% of citations. Between 2001 and 2011, the publication rate fell to 3.4%, but the citation rate rose to 1.5%.

According to the paper’s authors, the dominance of North America and part of Europe as production centers of cutting-edge science has tended to remain unchanged. In the opinion of Elizabeth Balbachevsky, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences, University of São Paulo, that situation could change. “The process by which countries such as Brazil and China absorb and accumulate knowledge is also an expansion phase for human and institutional resources that are needed to make a leap forward in the quality of research in the future,” she says. But that outcome is not automatic. It depends on the quality of science, technology and education policies. The professor recalls that, in the 1990s, a study conducted by Professor Peter Scott of England, at the request of the then Brazilian Minister of Science and Technology, gained notice when it showed that Brazilian research output was less than that of Belgium. “Today the growth of Brazilian science is above the world average. This proves that the geography of science is changing,” Balbachevsky says.