30 years in science: Secular movements in knowledge creation

February 2010

This Discussion Paper examines the relationship between geopolitical factors and scientific activity based on publication data from a 30-year period (1980 to 2009), extracted from the Web of Science database (Thomson Reuters). Using bibliometric methods, the analysis concentrates on large-scale, secular movements in the geopolitics of knowledge creation. First, the evolution of the scientific outputs of the countries of the former USSR and Eastern Bloc is examined followed by that of the Middle East. The paper then looks at how the global map of science has been reshaped in Asia’s favour.

Most of the Warsaw Pact countries’ scientific production was majorly impacted one way or another by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Whereas most of the republics that used to constitute the USSR saw their scientific production falter, many satellite countries, such as Poland, immediately increased their contributions to world science, as did the ex-Soviet republics Lithuania and Estonia.

Overall, growth in the Middle East has been rapid (nearly four times faster than at the world level), with Iran and Turkey leading the pack. In particular, Iran embarked on one of the fastest build-ups of scientific capabilities the world witnessed during the last two decades, and the evidence on growth and emphasis on specific, strategic subfields suggests that this may be the result of Iran’s controversial nuclear technology development program.

On a global scale, several “hot zones” of scientific production have emerged, by far the most notable of these being Asia. Over the last 30 years, Asia’s share of world scientific output grew by 155% and, as of 2009, surpassed that of Northern America. China, in particular, has shown spectacular progress—its scientific output grew more than five times faster than that of the US, and it is set to meet the US level of output in 2015 (and surpass the US in the natural sciences in 2010). While, Northern America’s rate of growth has been considerably slower than that at the world level, Europe has managed to maintain its hold of the greatest share—over one-third—of the world scientific output.

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