Global Science Research and the Value of International Collaboration

Science research spending around the globe has increased by 45 percent to more than $1,000 billion (one trillion) U.S. dollars since 2002. In 2008, 218 countries generated more than 1.5 million research papers, with contributions ranging from Tuvalu’s one paper to the U.S.’ 320,000 papers. The U.S. leads the world’s production of science research, accounting for 21 percent of publications and nearly $400 billion worth of public and private science R&D. BRIC and other developing countries, including China, India, Brazil and South Korea, account for much of the increase in scientific publications.

Science Research in the BRIC Countries of China, India and Brazil

A study by the U.K.’s Royal Society points out that the BRIC countries, along with South Korea, “are often cited as rising powers in science.” From 2002 to 2007, the China, India and Brazil more than doubled their spending on science research, bringing their collective share of global spending up from 17 to 24 percent.

Engineering is a common focus of science research in China, India and Russia. Scientific fields in which China has developed a leading position include nanotechnology and rare earths. Agriculture and biosciences are two important fields of emphasis in Brazil, which is a leader in biofuels research.

In keeping with their rapid economic development and massive populations, China and India, the world’s first and second most populous countries, produce large and growing numbers of science and engineering graduates each year. In 2006, about 2.5 million students in India and 1.5 million students in China graduated with degrees in science and engineering.

International Collaboration

Today, over 35 percent of science research articles are the result of international collaborations among researchers from different countries, a 40 percent increase from 15 years ago. The number of internationally co-authored papers has more than doubled since 1990.

The U.S., U.K., France and Germany continue to be key hubs of international collaboration in science research. Researchers in other developed and developing countries actively collaborate with scientists from these countries. According to the Royal Society report, “while links between the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have been growing in recent years, they pale in comparison to the volume of collaboration between these individual countries and their partners in the G7.”

International science research often takes the form of regional collaboration. Regional political institutions, including the European Union (EU), African Union (AU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), each have their own research strategies that foster and facilitate regional collaboration in science research.

“South-South Collaboration” between developing countries is a growing form of international science research. The International Centre for South-South Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation was inaugurated in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2008 under the auspices of UNESCO. An initiative of India, Brazil and South Africa promotes South-South cooperation in several arenas, including science and research collaboration in fields such as nanotechnology, oceanography and Antarctic research.

Collaboration’s Benefits and Drivers

There are a number of important benefits, motivations and enabling factors that help explain the growth of international collaboration in science research, including:

1) greater impact;
2) scientific discovery;
3) scale of research projects;
4) scope and complexity of research topics and international issues;
5) capacity-building; and
6) advances in technology and communications.

Fourteen countries experienced more than a three-fold increase in their standard domestic publication impact by collaborating with one or more of 22 partner countries. Each additional international author leads to an increase in a paper’s impact, up to a tipping point of about ten authors. By collaborating with one another, scientists can access complementary skills and knowledge and stimulate new ideas.

The scale of some major science research projects is too large for most countries to undertake on their own. In such cases, international collaboration is necessary to meet extensive requirements for human, financial and other resources. The scope and complexity of certain science research topics and objectives can also drive international collaboration.

Many of the world’s most pressing social problems are international issues that call for collaboration and cooperation. Climate change, food security, public health (e.g., AIDS/HIV, malaria and tuberculosis) and sustainability are just a few of the global issues that require international collaboration and solutions.

Collaboration allows scientists in one country to build their capacity to conduct significant science research by leveraging the resources of partners in other countries. Collaboration can be particularly beneficial to partners from developing and developed countries.

Advances in technology have contributed greatly to the feasibility and appeal of international collaboration. For researchers in developing and developed countries alike, improvements in communication technologies and services have made international collaboration simpler, faster and cheaper than ever before.

Success Stories

The Royal Society study presents several encouraging examples of cases where science research and international collaboration have contributed greatly to addressing important international issues.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) encompasses an international network of independent centers of agricultural research in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Despite operating on a modest yet significant annual budget of $550 million, every $1 invested in CGIAR is estimated to yield a very healthy return of $9 worth of additional food in developing countries.

The World Health Organization (WHO) set up FluNet in 1996 as a global tool to monitor and evaluate influenza virus strains by leveraging data from a number of national influenza laboratories around the world. When the epidemic of severe respiratory illness broke out in Hong Kong in 2003, the FluNet network contributed to a coordinated, rapid response from the international science and medical community that identified the virus and helped minimize the related public health threat and consequences.

The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization has immunized more than 200 million children and prevented over 3.4 million premature deaths since receiving a start-up grant of $750 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 1999.

Royal Society Study – Knowledge, Networks and Nations

These are some of the key findings published recently in the Royal Society’s examination of global science research entitled Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century.

The Royal Society study is based on statistics from international organizations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Society’s own analysis of data on science research articles published in roughly 25,000 separate scientific journals by the more than 7 million researchers around the world.

Science research encompasses both research and development, the “R” and “D”, respectively, of public and private R&D efforts, which range from abstract and conceptual exploration through to market-oriented development of scientific applications.

Research Findings

The Royal Society study paints an encouraging picture of growing international investment in science research. International collaboration is a highly valuable mechanism for promoting scientific discovery and maximizing the impact of science research. Publicly and privately funded science R&D has played a key role in successfully addressing key issues related to public health, food security and the environment, among others.