Dec 17, 2023 - Science

The global web of science collaboration is expanding

Data: National Science Board, National Science Foundation; Note: Citation count taken at least two years after publication. 2020 EU data excludes the U.K.; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios
Data: National Science Board, National Science Foundation; Note: Citation count taken at least two years after publication. 2020 EU data excludes the U.K.; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

New patterns of partnership are emerging among scientific powerhouses.

Why it matters: International collaborations tend to yield impactful scientific advances — but there is intense political debate in the U.S. and beyond about the calculus of maximizing those benefits while minimizing the national security concerns collaborations can bring.

By the numbers: The overall share of science and engineering publications from international teams climbed from 16% in 2003 to nearly 23% in 2022, according to the latest National Science Board's Science & Engineering Indicators released this week.

  • Over those two decades, China and the U.S. became each other's most frequent scientific partners. That remains true though data indicates collaborations between the two countries began to decline in 2020 for the first time in decades.
  • China generated the most scientific publications in 2022 — about twice as many as the U.S. The share of articles from China that were highly cited grew from 0.4% in 2006 to 1.3% in 2020, while the share of U.S. articles that were highly cited dropped to 1.7% in 2020 and Japan slipped as well.
  • The data echoes another recent analysis from Clarivate, which noted: "China has moved strongly ahead and has effectively dispelled the notion that China emphasizes quantity above quality."
  • No one country leads in all scientific areas — for example, the U.S. published the most papers in the health sciences, China in engineering, and India in computer science.

Zoom in: The network of publications on artificial intelligence — deemed a critical technology by the Biden administration and leaders the world over — is centered on the U.S. and China.

  • About 33% of U.S. publications in AI-related fields between 2003 and 2022 were the result of international collaborations, compared to 16% of China's AI papers.
  • Like in other fields, the U.S. and China are one another's main partners. The next 10 most prolific partnerships between countries involve one of them.

Between the lines: Beyond the main partnerships, research is often regionalized — clustered in Europe, Asia and other places where there is historical cooperation, political and economic alignment or simply opportunity.

  • China has increased its focus on the Silk Road region, partnering with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt, as well as Singapore and other countries in Asia. Researchers in India are working with their counterparts in Australia.
  • Those partnerships make sense, says Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, which also found China is looking beyond the U.S. for science partners. It can be difficult for countries that are building their scientific capabilities to break into a longstanding network of collaborations between countries and institutions, he says.
  • But the regionalization also reflects geopolitics, says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent in the UK, who adds it isn't something to necessarily worry about but to watch.
  • "We're in an age where innovation only happens when you keep knowledge circulating," she says. "Knowledge is no longer an asset if it's just sitting there."

The overall trend in science is more collaboration. China has signed at least 52 science and technology agreements (STA) with other countries and other science-related agreements with 64 other countries, according to a recent study.

  • The U.S. has nearly 60 bilateral STAs.
  • A longstanding agreement between the U.S. and China — which expired in August — was extended and is being renegotiated.

Yes, but: China and India still have a strong domestic focus, according to the data.

  • About 20% of publications from researchers in China and 24% of those authored by scientists in India involved international collaborations compared to 40% for the U.S. and 67% for the U.K.
  • China and India should be concerned, Zhang says, because while they are rising science powers, they're "still in this model of keeping everything domestic and that's not efficient."

The debate: U.S. policymakers are debating what guardrails might be placed on science and tech collaborations, including immigration measures, to address those concerns.

  • Other experts argue international scientific collaborations are a key window into the advances and capabilities of other countries.
  • They are "our best hope for avoiding technological surprise," says Suresh Garimella, president of the University of Vermont and a member of the National Science Board.

The big picture: "The risk isn't that there is a different center but that there is no center," says Deborah Seligsohn, a professor of political science at Villanova University.

  • Periods of great scientific advancement have usually had a center where scientists could freely exchange ideas, she says, pointing to ancient Athens, Germany before the world wars of the 20th century, and the U.S. since.
  • "For the last 100 years, the place where people felt most free to pursue their research and funding is most plentiful is the U.S."
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