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Best Countries in Science: SA‘s Global Science Scorecard

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“Global society operates as a network of creativity and innovation.”–John Sexton, writing in Scientific American.

In the October 2012 issue, we publish our Global Science Scorecard, a ranking of nations on how well they do science—not only on the quality and quantity of basic research but also on their ability to project that research into the real world, where it can affect people’s lives.

The United States comes out on top, by a wide margin, followed by Germany, China, Japan, the U.K., France, Canada, South Korea, Italy and Spain. (More about our methods below.)

In the accompanying issue, we explain some of the more salient trends behind the globalization of science and what it means. Why, for instance, does Germany still make things? While the U.S. and other developed nations lose manufacturing to countries with lower labor costs, Germany has managed to keep a high-tech edge through a close partnership between government, academia and industry. We take a close look at China’s rise to world-class research status, which shows that the Middle Kingdom still has to figure out how to raise the bar not just at the very best labs but throughout all its universities.

We also look at the factors behind the success of the U.S. and the challenges of staying on top. One of the reasons scientists in the U.S. do top-flight work, argues Paula Stephan of Georgia State University, is that the best are better paid–in other words, income disparity in science is not all bad. And Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, gives us his bold plan for raising scientific literacy: reinvent the way science is taught.

“There is a massive collaboration going on in science,” says Paul Nurse, former Rockefellar University president and now head of the British Royal Society, in a Q&A. “Science is a catalyst that can break down the gulf between nations.”

Our ranking drew heavily on preliminary data from Digital Science, a sister company to Nature Publishing Group (which publishes Scientific American). Digital Science has assembled a database of research papers published in top peer-reviewed journals around the world and has organized them by nation of origin.

That tells you much about how much raw science a nation produces, but it doesn’t tell you much about whether a nation is taking advantage of those good ideas. For this, other metrics come into play. The output of graduates trained in the sciences is an important indicator of how substantial, and sustainable, a research program is. For that, the OECD gathers data on the number of new doctorate graduates. What industry spends is also a factor, which OECD data on R&D expenditure captures. And patents issued (available from the U.S. Patent Office) give you a rough idea how well a nation turns science into technology.

Fred Guterl About the Author: Fred Guterl is the executive editor of Scientific American and author of Fate of the Species (Bloomsbury). Follow on Twitter @fredguterl.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 2:21 pm 09/28/2012

    Wow, the county with 45% of its population believing the earth is less than 10k years old; that leads in climate science denial; that has 3 million reports of alien abductions annually; that cancelled its own particle collider project; that bans stem cell research, is the world leader in science. Well I guess that’s because the US spends more on the military than all other technically advanced nations combined. Lets face it, science is the devils work unless of course it helps you kill heathens more efficiently. Instead of patting itself of the back, the US should be embarrassed that it’s education system produces some of the most scientifically illiterate people in the western world.

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  2. 2. Derick in TO 2:45 pm 09/28/2012

    Hmmm.. Scientific American rates the world’s nations on science, and finds America is number 1… by a wide margin.

    No chance of bias in that assessment…

    Did you folks just stick your fingers in your ears and start humming Land of Liberty when it came to the nearly HALF of Americans who fail to believe in evolution? RSchmidt is right – America is the least scientifically literate nation in the West. Stealth bombers and cranking out the latest new smartphone every 8 months doesn’t make a nation science-savvy. Regular citizens who have a basic level of scientific literacy does. And in that the US gets a big, fat F.

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  3. 3. crosscultural 8:55 pm 09/28/2012

    The previous comments appear to be based mostly on emotional personal political leanings. It would be more enlightening to know how many of the science graduates and how much of the science discoveries accrued to the benefit of the United States as opposed to directly or ultimately helping friend and foe abroad. My gut feeling is that China would come out on top.

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  4. 4. scribblerlarry 10:08 pm 09/28/2012

    More fodder for the “we-are-exceptional” menagerie to placidly chew their cuds on in between visits to their therapists.

    I’ll bet that by selecting the criteria carefully ANY country could be “proven” the leader in darn near anything.

    This publication has become a great disappointment to its readers.

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  5. 5. ErnestPayne 10:09 pm 10/1/2012

    The problem with the US “lead” in science is the dramatic difference in education of under 25s in comparison with other countries. The US is coasting on the backs of soon to retire baby boomers and this does not bode well for the future of the country.

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  6. 6. Dpgriff 10:22 pm 11/29/2012

    The average person doesn’t need a deep understanding of science. There are only so many positions open to scientists within a society. Most professions have little practical use for higher level scientific knowledge. Yes, there are some outspoken evangelical lunatics here in the U.S. but that shouldn’t undermine the nation as a whole. The United States produces far more scientific papers annually than any other country on the planet. The United States continues to receive the most Nobel prizes in science. Our country is home to some of the most elite universities in the world. The ignorant christian fundamentalists covered in the media are not an accurate representation of the country as a whole.

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