Magazine article Science News

U.S. Leads in Science Olympics, But

Magazine article Science News

U.S. Leads in Science Olympics, But

Article excerpt

During last year's summer Olympic games, U.S. athletes walked away with more medals-especially gold ones-than did athletes from any other nation. On a per capita basis, however, the U.S. behemoth ranked only 37th, notes Robert M. May, head of Britain's Office of Science & Technology in London.

Similarly, international rankings of research performance differ, depending on how prowess is measured. While the United States leads the pack in many measures, says May, per capita comparisons can offer "surprises."

May used data collected between 1980 and 1994 by the Philadelphia-based Institute for Scientific Information. Its Science Citation Index tracks peer-reviewed papers from more than 4,000 journals-some 8.4 million papers over the period May studied. He acknowledges that these data overrepresent offerings by industrial nations and English speakers (SN: 7/22/95, p. 55).

In terms of the sheer volume of publications, May told Science News, "everybody knew that the [United] States was the leader-ahead of the total for the European Union, which is about half again as big in population." After adjusting such data for a nation's size or income, he still expected the United States to be leading. Instead, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, Denmark, and the Netherlands topped those lists.

As one gauge of their importance, May looked at how often the papers were cited by others. Again, on a per capita basis, he reports in the Feb. 7 Science, those same five countries hovered at the top, showing "the extraordinarily high quality of these smaller players."

Then he analyzed performance by the biggest players-the seven richest industrial powers. On both a per capita and an expenditure basis, he found that Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom outperformed Japan, Germany, France, and Italy-"not just by a little bit, but by two or three times."

The underlying factor, he speculates, is where a nation conducts its published research. …

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