May 10, 2011


World of discovery: Science’s new age of enlightenment spreads to once-dark nations (Trevor Butterworth, April 11, 2011, The Daily)

Pop quiz: Which country is the world’s fastest growing producer of scientific research? If you don’t already know, smart guesses would be China, which has increased its R&D budget by 20 percent per year since 1999, or India or Brazil, two of the other recent big investors in scientific research. But the answer is, in fact, Iran, according to a fascinating study by Britain’s Royal Society, “Knowledge, Networks and Nations.” [...]

Reading through the 144-page report, one can almost sense the authors — some of Britain’s most distinguished scientists — marveling at the findings. Here is Tunisia, which spent just 0.03 percent of its GDP on research in 1996, increasing spending to 1.25 percent in 2009, and thereby adding 139 new research laboratories. There’s Turkey, now spending more on research than Denmark. And Saudi Arabia has just opened its first graduate research university with an endowment of $20 billion and a host of international partnerships.

Even Cambodia, which practically lost its entire educated class under Pol Pot, has boosted its scientific research from seven papers in 1996 to 114 in 2008. [...]

Less obvious, but perhaps even more important is the collaborative nature of this global race. Buried in those thousands of Iranian research papers is the number 472, the percent increase in collaboration between Iranian and American scientists on co-authored papers.

And when the going gets tough between nation-states, it is this shared quest for knowledge, this common bond of curiosity, which keeps scientists talking. As the Royal Society reminds us, “Following the Iranian elections in June 2009, Iranian scientists called out to the international research community to ‘do everything possible to promote continued contact with colleagues in Iran, if only to promote détente between Iran and the West when relations are contentious.’”

A case in point of science bridging seemingly entrenched political divides is Iranian participation, along with scientists from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in the Synchroton-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, a costly technology for analyzing the structure of substances essential for doing world-class science. The project was inspired by Stanford University Professor Herman Winick, facilitated by a gift of equipment from Germany, developed by UNESCO, and built in Jordan.

While it would be reading too much into these collaborations to see evidence of a new kind of science-based geopolitics, these developments, when added to the power of the web to circulate research and connect scientists, are nothing short of amazing; at least, they certainly would have amazed all those 18th and 19th century botanists, chemists and engineers, amateurs and geniuses alike, who believed, passionately, in spreading knowledge for the betterment of mankind.

And yet, this portrait of a world in a state of transformation, sharing knowledge on a scale as never before, made little impression in the American media.

Posted by at May 10, 2011 5:19 AM

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