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Going for Gold - in science

by Neil Craig

BRITAIN RECENTLY did magnificently in an important international competition. By one measure we came third, after the USA and China and per capita far ahead of both. Also per capita ahead of everybody else except a handful of relatively small countries.

By another measure Britain came second. Scotland, per capita did even better being placed well ahead of the whole UK and in either first or second place for any country.

No, it was not the Olympics. It is a competition far more important than that. Though you won't see it reported.

I'm writing about the international measurement of scientific citations.

The accepted best method of determining the importance of scientific work is the number of citations achieved in further papers, which are thus acknowledging that they are indebted to the cited work for its original research.

Measurements over the period 1996-2010 show that, as with Olympic Gold medals, Britain is placed third in the world after the USA and China. We had 1.5 million influential cited scientific papers, as against China's 1.8 million and the USA's 5.3 million. Without any equivalent of playing to a home advantage.

Per capita that is 24,725 citations per million citizens (the US has 16,949 and China 1,360) . Per capita worldwide only Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands do better and only Switzerland, with its extensive medicines industry, by a significant amount – 32,505 per million with a population of 9.5 million.

But as with the Olympics it matters how you look at the figures as I have in my blog, here and then here. In the Olympics we fall behind Russia if we look at total medals, which is probably statistically more valid than simply looking at Gold. With science the equivalent of that could be looking not at the number of papers cited but at the total number of citations. Then to really get to the nitty gritty lets remove "self-citations" which are more common in some countries than others - In America and China half of all citations are by the paper's authors themselves. In Britain and most other countries it is under a quarter This makes a difference.

Britain gets a total of 180,600 or 300 per thousand. The US has 53,800 which is only 172 per thousand. China falls into a relatively poor 13th place, with 4,460 (behind Sweden and Switzerland). In per capita terms that is only 3.3 citations.

In per capita terms Britain still falls behind the same small countries and now also behind Israel and Denmark. But after all small countries are small. Except...

The listing referred to above shows only the figures for entire countries. This one, for a somewhat different time period but still compatible shows Scotland having total citations of 1,709,184 compared to England's 10,508,202. Combining the 2 as a fair approximation to the UK total is 12,217,386. Scotland's population is 5.22 million while the combined Scots/English one is 58.22 million. That means that Scotland is producing citations per capita of 156% of the UK average.

Extrapolating that onto the world figures given previously gives us 36,571 documents cited putting us well ahead of even Switzerland while on independent citations, we have 468 per thousand, this time behind Switzerland's 653 but ahead of every other country. I'd call that joint first in the world.

The homelands of James Clerk Maxwell and Einstein should be far more proud of this than of sports proficiency (though we both do well there too).

Scientific prowess is not merely more commendable than sporting it is also massively more important. All human progress is ultimately based on scientific and technological change. Without the millenia-long accumulation of ideas never thought in the world before, we would still be sitting in caves afraid of the fire going out. (An irony regarding our windmillist political class's "war against fire" and CO2.)

It is something for Scotland to be immensely proud of that two centuries after the Scottish Enlightenment we are still at the cutting edge of human endeavour. That we can be in the forefront of almost any technological progress, subject only to our politicians not preventing it.

Who knows the causes of this. The scientifically leading countries aren't all the richest, though naturally they tend to be. Hong Kong and Singapore, both small countries richer than us, lag far behind us in citations per capita, Japan even further. The old Commonwealth and Scandinavian spheres do well, as do those with a Presbyterian culture so perhaps Scotland, at their intersection is not so surprising.

But if we should be proud of having inherited such a culture from our ancestors how deeply shameful it would be not to pass it on to our descendants. How shameful that this does not engender the media respect that the Olympics do. How shameful it is that our politics now revolve around a referendum on "independence in Europe" rather than the fact that, for the first time in 700 years, our education system is no longer better than that south of the border.

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Article from Thursday 30, August, 2012