The Decline of US Scientific Impact

Posted by

Dov Michaeli

Posted 1/07/12 on The Doctor Weighs In

Incredulous Dov

I have attended more scientific and medical conferences than I care to remember. One thing that never failed to impress me was the large number of foreign-born young scientists attracted to our country and our great universities. Many of those scientists arrived as students from countries that smothered independent thoughts and initiatives, and chose to stay in the country where freedom reigned and the possibilities were unlimited. But then 9/11 happened, and our country was seized with a dark mood of suspicion and outright xenophobia. Young students and scientists could not join our scientific enterprise, to our great detriment. What we lost was the great intellectual cross-fertilization that animated our progress. The rise of xenophobic obsessions, coupled with hostility toward Science by the Bush administration wrought incalculabe long-term harm to American science. Yes, we are still garnering a lot of Nobel Prizes, but don’t let it deceive you -those brilliant scientists are awarded their respective prizes for work done over decades, during the golden age of American science.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

How do we measure the impact a scientist is making in his field of research? Not by thenumber of papers. Most scientific breakthroughs are made by a handful of researchers, and their findings published in a few seminal papers. The rest are “backing and filling”, closing gaps in our knowledge, confirming, making marginal progress. Don’t get me wrong, this is an important and indispensible aspect of the scientific endevour; it prepares the ground for the next breakthrough. But the impact individual papers of this “second rung” research is naturally smaller.

The most reliable metric for determination of impact is the number of citations a paper receives. It is not a perfect metric; many important papers languished in obscure journals for many years before their importance is discovered. The paper describing the synthesis of aspirin lay dormant in a chemical journal for almost a century before being discovered by pharmacologists working for the German Bayer company. But as a rule, measuring a paper’s impact by the number of citations it receives in subsequent publications is a pretty good indicator of its impact on the field.

So what does the mirror on the wall tell us about who is the most impactful of the all? An analysis produced by Thomson Reuters came up with a surprising result: Scientific papers from the U.K have the greatest impact in the world when the six most prolific nations are ranked by average number of citations. Britain produced 8% of the world’s research articles and reviews but 17% of the world’s research papers with more than 500 citations and 20% of those with more than 1000 citations. The U.K performance surpassed the U.S. from second to first rank in 2007. Germany went from fourth place in 1991 to second place in 2010, knocking the United States down to third place last year.

Impact of scientific papers (data obtained from Thomson Reuters research)

The Thomson Reuters report says that the “rising trajectory” of U.K. research stands in contrast to the U.S record, which “has at best plateaued in performance and -according to some estimates -in now in decline”.

Will they ever learn?

With a group of troglodytes now holding sway in the halls of Congress I am quite pessimistic. Hostility to Science is now in vogue, and Presidential candidates compete in brandishing their credentials as ignorami.

American exceptionalism? Bah humbug!

One comment

  1. I applied for a postdoc position in the UK in 2004- the year I graduated with my PhD in the US. It was so easy once I was selected, to fill out a form and get all my paperwork processed. My husband had gotten a job in the US in 2000 after graduating with his PhD and I was listed on his green card application. It wasn’t till 2005, when I was already in the UK, that we got approval for our green cards. The person who approved us for our green cards at the US consulate in Germany was very courteous. When I told him I was in the UK for two years for the post-doc, he told me that as long as I was in the US for 1 day per calendar year there would be no problems and that the US wanted well-trained people like me to make it their home. And yet, when I was re-entering the country at the end of my post-doc, I was loudly berated and humiliated by the ICE employee at Shannon Airport for ‘treating my green card like it allowed me to vacation in the US’. He threatened to cancel it right there and then, despite my saying to him I had broken no rules. I was allowed on the flight after he had had his fill of yelling. In contrast, I found it so easy to enter UK and I never felt disrespected. Contrast that with my American experience. Every time I have entered the US as a non-citizen, I have felt like a supplicant at the gates of the emperor standing in heat or snow outside US embassies in India or Germany (where my husband is from), like cattle when standing in airport ICE lines and like a criminal when being questioned by the wonderfully trained ICE personnel.

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