Iran, Tunisia and Turkey are among a number of countries beginning to challenge the dominance of established powerhouses of scientific research, according to a major new report that has identified rapidly emerging nations "not traditionally associated with a strong science base".
Although traditional 'scientific superpowers' still lead the field, a report released last week by Britain's Royal Society - roughly equivalent to the country's Academy of Sciences - looked beyond the more commonly documented challengers to Western science domination such as China, India and Brazil.
It found that Iran has been expanding fastest in the number of scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals, growing from just 736 in 1996 to 13,238 in 2008.
Other up-and-coming countries include Tunisia and Turkey, according to the report Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global scientific collaboration in the 21st century.
Turkey has improved its scientific performance "at a rate almost rivaling that of China", after declaring research a public priority in the 1990s, the study said. Spending on R&D increased almost six-fold between 1995 and 2007 and now Turkey spends more annually than countries like Denmark, Finland or Norway. Four times as many papers with Turkish authors were published in 2008 as in 1996, the study said.
Tunisia has increased the percentage of its gross domestic product spent on research and development from 0.03% in 1996 to 1.25% in 2009, while restructuring its national R&D system to create 624 research units and 139 research laboratories.
James Wilsdon, head of policy at the Royal Society, said Tunisia had among the highest research investment in GDP terms in the region.
Wilsdon told University World News that countries like Iran, Turkey and Tunisia had an established research base in their universities. "They are not yet up there with the OECD [advanced industrialised] countries but there is a lot to build on. A lot more can be done if investment can be directed towards these countries," he added.
"The scientific world is changing and new players are fast appearing," said Chris Llewellyn Smith, chair of the study's Advisory Group and Director of energy research at Oxford University "No historically dominant nation can afford to rest on its laurels if it wants to retain the competitive economic advantage that being a scientific leader brings."
He was referring in particular to countries like China, Singapore and Brazil. But other countries may not be far behind.
Iran has already announced a 15-year comprehensive scientific plan to promote technological development and a knowledge-based economy. "Science must lead to self-actualisation," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last month, unveiling the plan to promote long-term sustainable growth in science.
Hadi Asadi Rahmani, a soil microbiologist at the Tehran-based Soil and Water Research Institute, told University World News another aim of the plan was to place Iran at the top of scientific knowledge production, innovation and technology in the Middle East.
The plan includes spending 4% of gross domestic product on R&D by 2030 - an ambitious target aimed at overtaking the US, which spends 2.8% of GDP on research and Japan which spends 3.4%. Currently Iran's R&D spending is around 0.6% of GDP.
The plan focuses on science and technology in the higher education, defense, aerospace and nuclear sectors. The construction of nuclear power plants, nuclear fusion, building and manned missions to space are its main objectives.
Drawn up by the High Council of the Cultural Revolution and prepared by 2,000 experts from 800 science and research centers, the plan includes 224 scientific projects that must be implemented by 2025.
Ali Karami, an associate professor of molecular biology at Iran's Baqiyatallah University of Medical Science, told University World News: "The plan will help in coordinating scientific activities in the country." It would also speed up scientific progress at the national, regional and international levels.
However, with unrest in North Africa and uncertainty in other countries, it is not clear how far these nations can keep up their advantage.
Iranian professor Muhammad Sahimi, a chemical engineer at the University of Southern California, told University World News. "Even if Iran has the best science plan, without the scientists, who are emigrating en masse, the plan does not have much of a chance of succeeding."
MIDDLE EAST: Research lagging - but expanding fast
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