What Does Globalization Mean for the Future of Research?

The following is an excerpt from the report “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a look at the social, political, and economic forces affecting researchers in 2017.

There was a day when science was dominated by researchers from Europe and North America. That day is not today. Just as science has become more open and collaborative, it has also become more global. Consider that while we might be called the American Chemical Society, two-thirds of our readers and authors are based outside the U.S. In the past five years, we’ve published 48,000 papers from Brazil, India, China, and South Korea. Our journals have 48 Associate Editors and 228 Editorial Advisory Board Members from those countries.

What’s true at ACS is true all over the world. We’re seeing a rapid rise in scientific output from the Middle East, China, and India, among other regions. As more nations prioritize science, the reach of research increases. Governments are focusing on scientific output and prioritizing contributions to the scholarly record. This means more voices, more ideas, and more innovation. The strengthening of science throughout the world, especially in China and India, will have a long-term impact on all fields of science,” says Sharon Hammes-Schiffer, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Reviews.

Take a closer look at China, which spent 2% of its gross domestic product on research and development in 2014, surpassing the EU’s spending levels as a share of GPD for the first time. The EU’s 28 member nations spent a combined $334 billion that year, compared China’s $345 billion. China’s total may be well short of the $433 billion the U.S. spent in 2013. But U.S. spending has hovered between 2.5% and 2.740% of international students are pursuing STEM education, including 82% of all students from India and 39% of all students from % of GDP since 2000, while China’s has increased steadily from 0.9% to more than 2% today. If China’s recent increase in research funding is ongoing, it could someday surpass U.S. research funding in raw dollars. China’s investments have global significance, as funding on that level attracts scientists from around the world.

Historically, very little of China’s research and development spending is invested in basic research. Instead, most funds go toward development of commercially focused technology, developments that could help China economically and socially. Sustainable energy, for example, is an area toward which the country’s government directs significant investment. There are signs, however, that this may be shifting. “The Chinese government has paid much more attention to fundamental science and has set up funding institutions to support scientists,” said Dongyuan Zhao, Ph.D., professor of chemistry at Fudan University in Shanghai and senior editor of ACS Central Science.

China isn’t the only country rapidly becoming a scientific powerhouse. In 2014, India became the first country to reach Mars on its initial attempt. India’s politicians are resolutely supporting these scientific endeavors. During his first year in office, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a determined plan to make India a leader in solar power.

Investments in places such as China and India may have effects beyond their borders. In the U.S., for example, some politicians see increased scientific funding abroad as a challenge and are using the issue to agitate for more funding at home. Increased competition in the marketplace of ideas may act as a guard against complacency and make supporting science a matter of pride for every nation.

The U.S. continues to attract about 1.2 million international students, including about 500,000 in masters or doctoral programs. About 40% of international students are pursuing STEM education, including 82% of all students from India and 39% of all students from China, compared with 19% of European students. Yet that figure may be stagnating, as more students opt to go to school in countries with less stringent immigration laws.

An increase in research funding in some parts of the world throws other areas into sharp relief. In spite of rapid economic growth, many nations in Sub-Saharan Africa still lack research infrastructure and support. These disparities present challenges for both local governments and international bodies to ensure brilliant minds in certain parts of the world aren’t left behind.

In the future, a researcher’s country of origin may become a purely circumstantial detail, and local funding and political support may begin to matter less. Already, once-regional conferences are now attracting people from all over the world. Video conferencing programs have opened up the doors for global collaborations. Scientific organizations vie for an ever-more global audience. Science has always transcended borders. Increasingly, researchers can too.

If you have comments or questions for the author of this post, please e-mail: Axial@acs.org.