Good News for Greens: Science Goes Global

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Finally, some good news for environmentalists. China has become the second most dominant publisher of scientific research in the world and within a few years will overtake the U.S., according to a new report.

The People’s Republic published 163,000 of the world’s 1.5 million research papers in major peer-reviewed journals in 2008, compared to the U.S’s 320,000, according to the report published by the Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy. By 2013, China will overtake the U.S. on that metric of scientific progress, the report finds. The reason? China’s spending on R & D has grown 20% a year since 1999 and now stands at $100 billion a year. The country also now produces around 1.5 million science and engineering graduates a year.

These figures are in line with a larger trend of investment in science in developing countries. Brazil and India, too, have seen major increases in scientific productivity in recent years. Globally, spending on science  increased by 45% between 2002 and 2007, which is roughly in line with global GDP. However, in the developing world, it’s gone up by over 100%.

That, my Green friends, is very good news. Why? Most of the biggest challenges facing the world today are global and environmental: Climate change, food security, biodiversity, water security and energy security, to name but a few. These problems require science to fully understand and technological innovation to overcome, and the more minds and more labs we have working on them the better. What’s more, climate change will likely be most severe in the developing world, so it makes sense to have scientific institutions in place there. As Chris Llewellyn Smith, director of energy research at Oxford University and the chair of the Royal Society’s study, tells Ecocentric, “global problems require global solutions.”

Even more heartening still, the report, titled “Knowledge, Networks and Nations,” lays out how collaboration has increased in recent years. In every part of the world international contribution to  scientific literature–as measured by the number of multi-authored papers with contributors from different countries–is increasing. Again, that’s great news for the green movement, because most environmental problems are borderless. Indeed, the report suggests that, thanks to information sharing and communication technology, it is no longer accurate to anticipate centers of enlightenment such as Edinburgh in the 18th century or Baghdad in the 8th century. Future periods of enlightenment will now be global. “The growth in overall collaboration globally indicates that the scientific landscape is increasingly interlinked. The level of collaboration may differ proportionally between countries, but it is clear that it is intrinsic to science on both a national and global level,” the report states.

Even papers published by authors in a single country may now have an international flavor, says Llewellyn Smith. “In the UK, for instance, there are 4.5 million foreign-born residents, and 20% of them have a scientific or engineering background. It’s no longer accurate to talk about ‘brain drain’ but ‘brain circulation,'”  he says.

Llewellyn Smith, himself a former director of the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland that set a record last year with a paper that had authors from 32 different countries, also told Ecocentric that international scientific collaboration has an added benefit when it comes to climate change: “If we are going to reach agreement on major global challenges it helps if all regions of the world–particularly less developed countries–are at the table analyzing the problems and designing solutions.”

Most of the top ten scientific countries—as measured by the number of papers published— are major Western powers: UK, Germany, Canada, Italy, Spain, France, U.S.; but along with China and Japan, India joined the top ten by displacing Russia in 2008. There were also surprises in the developing world. Iran, for instance, registered the fastest-growing number of publications of any country on the planet. The number of research papers in Iran rose from 736 in 1996 to 13,238 in 2008. And the Islamic Republic’s government  committed to increasing R&D to 4% of GDP by 2030, up from just 0.59% in 2006.