Science is serious business. Governments, companies and charities invest hundreds of billions to fuel research efforts worldwide. The results, they hope, will increase knowledge, drive economic growth, improve lives and create new possibilities for people in the future.
But which science matters most and who’s doing it? Those are the questions underlying a new list of the world’s top researchers compiled by the data and media company Thomson Reuters.
Highest concentrations of highly cited researchers in Canada by affiliation
Roughly 3,200 names appear on the list, which represents the company’s best estimate of who is making the biggest impact in science worldwide.
The effort is driven by a growing interest among universities to assess their faculty and prospective hires and among funding agencies to compare and quantify the impact of the science they support.
Yet hidden within the global list lies a fascinating and unvarnished glimpse at Canada’s role in the scientific enterprise. It highlights where public investments are making the biggest impact and raises questions about how Canada’s modest resources can best be used to foster scientific excellence.
“Much of science occurs at the expense of taxpayers,” says Basil Moftah, president of Thomson Reuters’ intellectual property and science division. “We think it’s important that people know how well that money is being spent and how much result it’s creating for society.”
Experts are quick to point out that numbers aren’t everything, especially when it comes to assessing the quality of an individual scientist or of a country’s overall contribution. But numbers do have meaning, and they can play a role in shaping national science policy.
With this in mind, The Globe and Mail has taken a deep dive into the Thomson Reuters data to see what it says about Canada’s scientific footprint.
Making the grade
To get a handle on what’s happening in the research world, the creators of the list divided science into 21 discrete fields, from agricultural science to space. They then combed through data on millions of published research papers to see which were the mostly highly cited by other researchers. By their definition, a highly cited paper means the top 1 per cent in a given field.
This is a new approach to a familiar idea – that a scientist’s impact can be measured by counting how often his or her published work is referred to in the work of others. In 2001, the previous time Thomson Reuters went through this exercise, the company counted up total citations per researcher over a decade-long period. But experts in bibliometrics – the technical name for this type of analysis – point out that this kind of strategy tends to favour established researchers, including those who may have accumulated many citations with work of medium impact.
Thomson Reuters says the news list is better at capturing the current state of science and identifying the up-and-comers who define the leading edge of research.
A changing world
The United States outspends all other countries in science and it shows. More than half the researchers on the list are affiliated with U.S. institutions, including government labs. On a short list of the world’s very top scientists – those with the highest number of “hot” papers that received the top 0.1 per cent of total citations – 13 out of 17 are based in the U.S. Of those, seven alone are associated with the Broad Institute, a leading-edge genomics centre run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
But it’s also clear the world is changing. In the totals of highly cited researchers by country, Thomson Reuters notes the arrival of China as well as Saudi Arabia among the top 15 science countries.
Today, a significant portion of scientific discovery in the U.S., as in Canada, represents the work of highly talented researchers who have come from abroad. As emerging economies assume a larger share of the world’s highest quality research – and benefit from it – that dynamic seems likely to change: More top scientists may be persuaded to stay or return home.