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

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.