Academic publications produced in China grew 13-fold in a decade to reach 53,000 in 2006, and the country now spends 1.4% of gross domestic product on research and development, according to a comparative study of 52 developing countries conducted for the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge. Publication figures leaped 23-fold in South Korea and 28-fold in Iran during the same period.
South Korea produced 22,380 publications in 2006 while Iran, whose research growth has been off a very low base, achieved 3,710 publications that year, according to Johann Mouton and Roland Waast, authors of the chapter "Comparative Study on National Research Systems: Findings and Lessons" in the UNESCO Forum's Research Report.
Their study shows that while there is a correlation between economic growth and the development of science and research systems, the picture is by no means uniform.
While academic publication soared in China between 1987 and 2006, output increased only 1.8 times in the other titan of the emerging market world, India. It allocated 0.8% of gross domestic product to research and development and produced 19,290 publications in 2006.
Other strong research performers in terms of publication growth over a decade include:
* Singapore - 5,250 publications in 2006, up 11 times from 1987.
* Tunisia - 1,080 publications in 2006, a 7.2-fold increase.
* Thailand - 2,235 publications, up 6.5 times.
* Brazil - 13,000 publications, up 5.2 times.
In terms of volume of publication in the countries surveyed, in the top 10 were China (with 53,000 publications), South Korea (22,380), India (19,290), Taiwan (13,700), Brazil (13,000), Israel (9,900), Singapore (5,250), Mexico (5,320), Argentina (4,337) and South Africa (3,850).
Mouton and Waast extrapolated general conclusions on research development out of the data collected.
"Asia is catching up faster than other parts of the world, with approximately eight countries making tremendous efforts and demonstrating continuous progress, with a growth factor of more than 3.5 between 1987 and 2006," they write. But a third of Asian countries are lagging and seem uncommitted to research development, most of them poor - such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar - but also some rich nations such as Brunei.
"The average level of scientific output in South America remains good, but there are significant geographical discrepancies," write Mouton and Waast. "Most of the Andean countries are lagging behind. Central American countries and the Caribbean seem less interested in research, with the two exceptions of Costa Rica and Cuba."
In total, half of the countries in both Latin America and Africa could be classified as being 'very small' science countries, with no real sustainable research and development activity.
In Africa, except for South Africa and North Africa, the gap between the continent and other continents is "huge", the authors write:
"Small scientific communities are very sensitive to the ups and downs of politics, policies and funding (local or international). Nevertheless they are capable of recovery, and for the past 10 years a few countries have shown noticeable growth - the Maghreb countries but also Botswana, Cameroon and Ghana, and some very poor countries such as Burkina Faso, Malawi and Mali. On the other hand, some scientific communities seem to be collapsing, as is the case in Nigeria and Sudan, where very little growth in output is reported."
The report makes an effort to explain why these disparities have occurred and appear to be growing, beyond the obvious fact that some governments are simply so poor that they cannot afford to spend much money on science, research and development.
It makes it clear that there is an interplay between the social, economic, historical and cultural traditions of a country and its government's policy regarding the promotion of science. While governments can choose to promote scientific study, they also operate within restrictions imposed by finances, existing institutions and public opinion.
In this regard, the report stresses that history plays a significant role. Some countries have simply been around a lot longer than others, while some were colonies until the 1960s or 1970s and their colonial authorities may have neglected to develop local universities, research institutions and publishing networks.
Latin American countries are good examples of how time and an indigenous education policy can help develop scientific, research and development institutions, given that most have been independent since the early 19th Century.
"Colonial times are now very much ancient history, and there is a relative abundance of universities, staff and reputable establishments," write Mouton and Waast. They add that even though Latin American governments have not always been particularly enlightened "there has been ample time to develop a 'space for science', and to build socio-cognitive blocs in support of these endeavours."
Similar situations are found in Egypt, South Africa and Thailand, it notes, where colonialism was either relatively light or, regarding Thailand, formally non-existent.
Other countries have had cultural traditions which "held science in high regard". Here again scientists and researchers in Egypt and Thailand have benefited from such support, as have academics in India and Viet Nam. On the other hand, countries that have relied heavily on sources of income other than innovation, such as oil (in the Gulf) and tourism or financial services (the Caribbean) have had less motivation to create a strong scientific sector.
Governments can of course act independently to create strong and thriving science, research and development sectors, and the report cites Singapore as an example. An interventionist government bent on economic growth has nurtured a sustainable R&D sector.
"Beginning with worker discipline and modest technical ambitions...Singapore moved on to the training of professionals and the production of more technological goods, and now to the growth of a powerful scientific community, featuring high-end training and devoted to strategic or applied research in computer science and biotechnologies," the authors say.
As well as being ends in themselves, such policies can generate support for science - given that their economic and social fruits become apparent over time. In some instances, this can be among business elites, for instance in countries that have developed strong policies supporting applied research designed to generate economic advances in favoured industrial sectors or 'clusters', such as Malaysia, Argentina, Chile and Mexico.
But popular support can also be garnered, and this can help governments to foster research and development in the long term: for instance agricultural research in Mozambique, and economically-orientated 'action research' at the University of the West Indies.
Mouton and Waast conclude that scientific inquiry at many institutions in developing countries is under-funded, driven by individual scientists' priorities and interests and there is lack of national investment in research and development.
"Despite commitments by ministers of science and technology to strive towards investing at least 1% of gross domestic product on R&D annually, the reality is that most countries spend less than 0.4%. As a result very few governments support public research through a national system of research grants and scholarships, which also explains the high reliance of many scientists on foreign funding.
"The solution is straightforward: the symbolic commitment to increased investment in R&D by governments needs to be put into practice."
* Professor Johann Mouton is Director of the Centre for Research on Science and Technology, and professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. His main research interests are science policy, higher education knowledge production, philosophy and methodology of social research and monitoring and evaluation studies.
* Professor Roland Waast is Emeritus Senior Researcher at the Research Institute for Development Studies (IRD) in France. He is the founder of the international network ALFONSO, co-director of the review Science Technology and Society, and an expert for the European Commission.
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