Three African countries make global top 50 in science

South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia are the only three African countries among the top 50 globally that are leading in science and engineering publication, according to the American National Science Foundation’s ranking index that is topped by the United States and China.

Using articles published in peer-reviewed journals in 2013, Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 placed South Africa in position number 35 with 9,854 peer reviewed articles. Egypt was at 36 with 9,199 articles while Tunisia came in at 50 with 4,207 publications.

The three African countries produced only 0.1% of the global total of 2,199,704 articles. According to the report, South Africa and Egypt each generated 0.4% and Tunisia a paltry 0.2%.

This was in sharp contrast with the top producers of peer reviewed articles in science and engineering that constituted the US, China, Japan, Germany and Britain, in that order.

Developing countries on the rise

According to Kelvin Droegemeier, chair of the committee on science and engineering indicators at the National Science Foundation, in 2013 American scientists and engineers produced 412,542 peer reviewed articles, accounting for 18.8% of the world total.

During the same period China produced 401,435 publications in science and engineering, accounting for 18.2% of the 2.2 million peer-reviewed articles produced globally.

“Although the US remains a major producer of science and engineering publications, in 2013 China reached a comparable share of research articles,” said Droegemeier.

From the perspective of trends in international science and engineering publication, the key observation was that the publication output of China and other emerging or developing countries had increased much more rapidly than that of the US and other developed countries.

That was the case for several developing countries that had more than 4,000 publications in 2013, and had rapid science and engineering publication growth of between 15% and 29% per year.

Those countries included Tunisia, Colombia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia and Thailand.

Getting what you pay for

According to Chiao-Ling Chang, a senior researcher at the UNESCO-backed Institute for Statistics, the intensity of production of publications in science and engineering was directly linked to a country or region’s expenditure on research and development.

In this regard, Africa was poorly represented as in total the continent spent a mere US$13 billion on research and development, which was 0.8% of the US$1.67 trillion global budget in 2013.

“Together, the US and China accounted for almost half of the estimated global expenditure on research and development in 2013, while Japan was third with 10%, followed by Germany (4%),” said Chang, who was one of the analysts for the National Science Foundation report.

In Africa, South Africa had the highest budget for research and development. In 2012 it spent US$4.9 billion, which was 0.8% of the gross domestic product, followed by Egypt which spent US$2.2 billion in 2011, which was 0.4% of GDP.

Other African countries rated as higher spenders in research and development included Morocco, which in 2009 allocated about US$1.1 billion, accounting for 0.7% of GDP. In the same year Tunisia also allocated US$1 billion, which accounted for 0.7% of GDP.

In 2010 Kenya is reported to have used US$646 million, which was about 1% of GDP, while in 2007 Africa’s largest economy – Nigeria – spent US$644 million, a paltry 0.22% of GDP.

Business-research correlation

According to the science and engineering indicators report, the geographic concentration of publications is also sharply apparent in countries and regions with highly developed business sectors.

“Currently, business sector is the predominant research and development performer for nearly all of the current top 11 top performing nations,” said Chang.

That is the situation prevailing in South Africa, which has had one of the fastest growth rates in commercial investment not just in Africa but among most developing countries globally, over the last several years.

The crux of the matter is that countries with high technology and manufacturing industries are poised to engage in high quality scientific research.

Using Elsevier’s Scopus database, analysts at the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, a unit of the National Science Foundation, scoured 17,000 peer-reviewed journals with intent to find indicators behind publication success in science and engineering.

One significant finding was that despite varied challenges, developing countries were approaching parity with developed nations in terms of publication of research in science and engineering. “Even smaller nations have emerged as prominent contributors,” the report noted.

More STEM graduates, PhDs needed

According to Dr Michael L Van Woert, director of the National Science Board, which coordinated overall production of the report, most developing countries have started investing resources in research and development, higher education, innovation and trade.

“Rapid growth rates in these areas can exceed those of developed nations and allow some of them to approach the capabilities of the developed world,” Woert says.

For Africa, the report is clear that if developing countries are to make progress in science there is an urgent need to increase access to post-secondary education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

“High quality science and engineering degrees have become important for an innovative economy, not just for the US but for all countries globally,” says the report

Commenting on the issue, Chang said that about half of the 6.4 million bachelor degrees in science and engineering awarded in 2012 went to students in America and China, and there is a need for other countries to increase their share of those degrees.

Towards this goal, the report identified Nigeria as being on track to have over 50% of undergraduate students enrolled in science and engineering fields in US universities undertaking degrees in STEM fields.

South Africa is quoted as a hub for training mobile students from many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report pointed out that if developing countries – and more so those in Africa – were to boost their intensity in science and engineering publication, there were no short cuts. “Such countries would have to increase the number of PhD and post-doctoral cadres,” it said.