Nationalism and Science

Via email, Mike Steeves points me to an Ars Technica article about a Thomson Reuters report on the “decline in American science”:

The US is beginning to lose its scientific dominance. That’s
the message from Thomson Reuters, the people behind EndNote and impact factors.
According to a report in their publication ScienceWatch, the US’ science
output is in a shallow decline at the same time that Asia is in the ascendancy.

If it sounds like you’ve heard that before, you’ve been
paying attention. Back in 2006 the National Science Foundation’s biennial
Science and Engineering Indicators report said the same thing, only to be
repeated again last year. The Thomson Reuters data builds on the numbers in the
NSF report, showing that the US research base is shrinking relative to an Asia
that’s steadily investing in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as a way to modernize.

When one looks at US peer-reviewed publications as a percentage
of the world’s total output, the decline looks most worrying. Looking at the
actual number of papers published gives a slightly rosier view; the total
number of publications in 2006 was down about 5,500 compared to 2005, with 2007
flat-lining.

That 5,500-paper decline is out of about 286,000, so a bit less than 2% of the total.

So, is this a big deal? Absolutely not. For one thing, the “decline” shows up in the stupidest possible measure of productivity, namely the raw number of papers published. More importantly, though, nationalism has no place in science.

It makes no difference whether new scientific discoveries are made in the US, Japan, or the Czech Republic. The laws of science are not confined to national boundaries, and a result discovered in Japan can lead to new technologies in the United States just as easily as the other way around. I suppose it’s nice to be able to claim priority if the conversation turns to national bragging rights in the bar at the March Meeting, but that’s not going to get anybody tenure.

From a scientific perspective, what matters is not where new discoveries are made, but that new discoveries are made. As long as the world total of scientific knowledge continues to increase, it really doesn’t matter whether the work is done by scientists in the US or in China.

In many ways, the increase in the proportion of science done outside the United States is a Good Thing. A greater diversity of research centers is all to the good– it makes science as a whole less subject to fluctuations in the funding provided by any one government. If narrow local political concerns close off some avenue of research in the US– as happened with stem cells under the Bush administration– there are other research labs in other countries who can pick up the slack.

This does not mean, by the way, that I oppose increased investment in science done in the US, or efforts to increase the number of American-born students pursuing careers in science. I’m in favor of both, but not because we need to avoid “falling behind” Europe or Asia. We should invest in science and encourage American students to study science because science is essential for human civilization, and a broader understanding of science will only benefit the entire world.

We need diversity in both funding sources and research approaches to find solutions to the scientific problems– climate change, pandemic disease, etc.– that we face in the years ahead. These are problems that will affect the entire world, and the entire world needs to contribute to the solution.

Comments

  1. #1 moshe
    February 27, 2009

    Thanks for writing this Chad, I think I made such points before myself, especially the one about the importance of having strong science outside the US. Good to hear this opinion stated loud and clear.

  2. #2 Joshua Zelinsky
    February 27, 2009

    Where scientific papers are published can matter in other ways. As a metric of how advanced a country is or how good its science education is. If a country’s total scientific production drops (assuming some reasonable metric) that’s a cause for concern.

    There’s another reason that the percentage metric is a bad metric though- as I understand it (I haven’t looked at the numbers) the total number of scientific papers published throughout the world has been steadily increasing over the last 50 years. By other metrics the scientific output is also increasing. So this may not be a decline in the US so much as other countries catching up to where they are.

    (Incidentally, a 2% difference in absolute number seems like it would possibly fall within expected fluctuation. What do the US numbers look like over the last 20 years?)

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    February 27, 2009

    All models must be modeled. We herein employ climatology modeling. 2100-2009 is 92 years. A 2% decline/year is (0.98)^92 or net 15.6% literature presence in 2100. The Earth will roast, the seas will overflow, and the United States will have no literature presence by 2100.

    What can we do? Our first task is to publish modeling studies. A brisk trade in Literature Credits and the Referee Tax on Everything can save us. Sustainable technical Literature must be a national priority. A massive Federal bailout of Brythonic prose poem studies is implicit. “No complete sentence of Brythonic has survived, but the consensus is that it was cognate with Latin.” We Must Act NOW!

  4. #4 bcooper
    February 27, 2009

    You seem to be speaking about these things from the perspective of what is best for the scientific community or science as a whole. I do not think this is the typical perspective from which these types of comments get raised; people who cite these types of studies are almost certainly more interested in the ancillary economic benefits of high quality science. Looked at from that side, it’s easy to see why they are interested in keeping that sort of thing in their house. It is probably a good thing that people think this way, since if it truly didn’t matter to them at all where the science was done I imagine it would be much harder to convince any one group to fund. Why shouldn’t they to try to profit off of the R&D of others?

  5. #5 D
    February 27, 2009

    Outside of the closed lifecycle of academic science, though, it does matter. The byproducts of academic science include scientifically educated citizens and others who “dropped out of the pipeline.”

    I work with some pretty sharp people who decided after their PhDs that academic science wasn’t for them — but they are a wicked powerful bunch for our industry. They may be failures to the world’s scientific enterprises (I won’t argue that one way or another) but they’re decidedly assets to the country’s economy.

    Which, if you think about it, may be one reason that the Government is willing to pay for them instead of letting other countries do it all.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    February 27, 2009

    I agree that raw papers published is almost certainly not a useful metric.

    The more relevant question to ask is how eager scientists (and students) are willing to relocate to the United States in order to do research, and how many of those decide to stay in the US. There, the news is not so good. The government agency formerly known as INS bears a large share of the blame (they can’t come/stay here if they can’t get get visas), but there are other problems as well. One that affects my field in particular is the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR)–even though my work is purely civilian and 100% non-classified, there are enough government bureaucrats sufficiently paranoid about military implications that it affects my ability to collaborate with non-US researchers. A one-sentence summary: If you are not a US citizen or permanent resident, I cannot tell you anything about the part of my work that falls under ITAR that you do not already know.

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 28, 2009

    It seems that more and more of my technical publications are in India and China.

    More and more email requests for papers for technical conferences come from Asia.

    Merely anecdotal, but I believe that this trend is real.

    I have a sentimental love for the USA, but it may be China, India, Indonesia that settles the Solar System.

    In the long run, America may become a footnote: split the atom; sequenced genome; first to the Moon; invented baseball, jazz, rock & roll… then couldn’t keep their eye on the ball.

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