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    Asia Has Taken Over Scientific Leadership Role From US
    By Sascha Vongehr | November 2nd 2010 10:30 PM | 22 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    The US is supposedly the undisputed leader in terms of scientific output. However, there is supposedly also "a threat" of losing this position. To counter this, there are suggestions like giving out more US visas to foreign scientists and engineers. Even stuff like “don’t make Americans scientists, make scientists American” passes as valid argumentation.

    I am reminded of attending seminars at a physics department of a US university, the “US professors” originating from Australia, Norway, Turkey, Japan, Germany, Poland, Great Britain, Russia, India, and Israel – I might have forgotten some - with a similar make-up of the attending graduate student body, and postdocs. Americans educated in the US? I remember few and the circumstances were often mysterious – “social engagement” can go a long way, so can being an athlete. So this is scientific leadership then: Save money on educating your own population, which you keep at a bible thumping level for the required political system, and just buy the best brains from all over the world.


    Take a good look at the enemy of science – scary isn’t it?


    Sure, that works, but does leadership not also according to US Judeo-Christian Anglo-Saxon culture imply something about being a role model to follow, for others to follow the lead? The US is not known for shying away from exporting its own way of life. If the world followed this leadership, if all countries were to just abandon proper science education and instead buy the brains from somewhere else, where would “somewhere else” be after about one generation? Somebody explain this scientific leader mathematics to me please.


    Of course, leadership can be understood as merely being the despot already for whatever historical reasons and to keep exploiting the rest. Is this what is meant, the good ol' US American way of life, merely another instance of arrogant double moral?


    Bible, quran, L. Ron Hubbard’s writings, those are the world leadership in books; the numbers are undisputed, but they do not lead me. If you pick the right numbers, China is not yet the scientific leader, but in Chinese physics departments, the people are almost all Chinese. Japanese kids know maths, maybe not the scientific leadership type, but still. My maths is not the leading type I guess, but I have reasons to believe that Asia is already the scientific leader.


    Much of this discussion about keeping in scientific leadership position is driven by sheer fear and ugly patriotism. What is so scary about China being the leader in scientific output? Science is scary and bad if yellow people do it? Discussions about keeping the US at the top are, if not straight identification of science with military might defending imperialism, about keeping the scientific leadership from yellow people. More US visas to foreign scientists and engineers however means that yellow people turn good on holy land. It is thus about politics, about ideology, a war.


    History, with all its distorted lessons, cannot teach much except for a few general insights about that some “leadership” leads nowhere, some down a path we should not follow. White “leadership” has failed the world; it is hardly possible that yellow can perform worse. It is time for the on average more intelligent people to take over; I am glad that they get a chance at the helm. Go Asia!

    Shi Yigong resigned from Princeton University and became the dean of life sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

    Comments

    who knew it was a race?

    don't forget, this (america) is the country that refuses to adopt SI. as a 2nd year chemistry student, i can tell you it's extremely difficult to teach yourself to think in metric when you were raised on the obscure and random american system. "american exceptionalism" is an ironic joke.

    Hank
    This is a cultural rant, and a fine one at that, but where is the data?  If the entire Asia-Pacific region, with 11X the population of the US, is 28% of the science output and the US alone is 32%, how has 'Asia' overtaken the US?    Or do you mean just because China has you??   :)  If so, I think you're pretty awesome, but hardly account for 4% of world science just by being there.
    Heres some data on the quality of research!! http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/44143/.
    Anyway, on a more positive note, I hope they contribute significantly to quality research. Theres nothing bad about solutions to cancer, novel materials, etc.

    vongehr
    As you well know, it is never just the data, it is always about what you measure - a very important scientific issue that leads to modern science (relativity, quantum physics, they start with questioning how we measure at all in an almost Kantian way). I wrote "They lead the world; the numbers are undisputed, ... According to the numbers, if you pick the right numbers, China is not yet the scientific leader", did I not? Data are useless if you do not agree on the metric - that is plain science studies and not "cultural rant": the discussion of what is "science output" needs to come before we throw around numbers. My perspective is global and should be understood in light of the question I asked all of you: "if all countries were to just abandon proper science education and instead buy the brains from somewhere else, where would “somewhere else” be after about one generation?". Surely, from this perspective, "science output" cannot be Nobel prices awarded to the most glamorous of science topics and citation/publication stats in a highly questionable ranking system that I criticized in more detail in plenty of posts. "Science output" should include the output of brains that can be bought to do future science. If you include that, China has won already. (You want to see data? Come on, I refuse to sit down and waste time on cranking out useless numbers, maybe biasing it like some top-university ranking list and all that crap is usually done just to prove the point here that numbers never speak for themselves. "Where is the data" is easy score rhetoric on a science blog, but I claim or fool myself to be on a more profound level than that and do not agree with that science is data driven - a naive, all upside down understanding of science.)
    Johannes Koelman
    Some data:



    This plot shows the cumulative distribution of the Nobel prizes in physics by country of birth. Anyone can argue in favor of another metric to measure 'scientific leadership', but I am happy to defend the claim that any country that is insignificant on this plot is not a scientific leader by any standard.

    It is clear from this plot that the majority of the prizes went to Europe. But the US is a strong runner up, and if the trend continuous they stand a chance to take over Europe's leadership position around 2030. Asia and Russia are insignificant, and Africa doesn't exist on this plot.

    And please note: the US didn't get into a runner-up position by 'buying the brains from somewhere else': a Chinese-born US citizen shows up on this plot as Chinese. (That is the dark red narrow stripe barely visible at the bottom just above Russia.)
     
    Let's face it: science still is a Ryder cup event. Anyone outside Europe and the US is basically a spectator. And yes, that is a tragedy: the Einsteins born in Somalia or China will probably not even become a patent clerk, let alone a scientist.
    Hank
    Some of this could be due to the 'shackled man' theory - removing the chains from the legs of China or India recently does not mean they will immediately catch up to the western countries who have a hundred years or more of a head start.    I am more baffled at his implication that freedom, which leads to creativity which leads to good science and is a hallmark of western science, is unimportant compared to overwhelming birth rates in Asia.  

    It would seem to me that conceding the low end of engineering or any drudge work is all that happens when more people are thrown at problems.   If the west retains the high end of science output then Asia won't be 'better' because it has more people, any more than they can produce better ICs by using more designers than Intel.
    vongehr
    "his implication that freedom ... is unimportant ..."
    I am interested on what grounds you infer such an implication that you attribute to me personally here, especially because I seldom myself use ill-defined terms like "freedom" without prior ensuring at least some weak consensus between the in the discourse involved parties on "freedom of what", as would be well understood when talking about "free fall" in space or "asymptotic freedom" of quarks. I sometimes of course have offended, as when claiming that I am in China now also for the academic freedom that one can enjoy here in the exact sciences and even the philosophy departments. I also find the freedom and ingenuity of grad students etc coming up with their own projects instead of slaving for the supervisor impressive. Creative ideas are being independently followed up on and presented to the group meeting, the supervisor suggesting collaborations between people, at least that describes my present nanotechnology research group. Does any of this strike a cord with somebody in "the land of freedom" where postdocs are slaves of the PI rather than paid by the university?
    vongehr
    Thank you for posting this interesting plot here Johannes, I appreciate your input. You will see from my above answer to a much less well argued comment ("cultural rant"???) that I find Nobel prices to be an improper metric. You are "happy to defend the claim that any country that is insignificant on this plot is not a scientific leader by any standard" is strange. Insignificance according to any certain standard does not translate into anything relative to all possible standards.
    Samshive
    Hi Johannes, 
    I'll have to disagree with you here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don't exactly see how you are able to extrapolate former Physics Nobel prizes to whether or not Asia is becoming a leader in science. Are you perhaps suggesting that the quality of science from Asia is not of the same level as that of the US and Europe?  

    Secondly, you previously stated that physicists are smug because it would take billions of dollars to prove them wrong. Accepting that statement, can you perhaps not see that the countries that have spent such vasts amounts of money on Physics would naturally be the ones that come up with the breakthroughs deserving of a Nobel Prize. 

    And finally, I really do not understand how this has become an argument. I think Sascha made a good point in asking what difference it make where science comes from. Africa has countless other problems to handle without worrying whether or not they have a Nobel prize physicist. If eventually the African countries reach the prosperity level of Europe and the US, I think the distribution would be quite different. 

    One last point not at all related to the argument. Is the graph really a cumulative distribution graph? I find it difficult to interpret it as one. I was always under the impression that cumulative distributions vs time would have a fixed maximum at 100% with distribution over time varying as percentages. If I am mistaken, I apologize. 
    Johannes Koelman
    Hi Siju, either I didn't write clearly or you have read my remark with a bias, or both issues apply. In any case, you seem to have misunderstood me completely.   "I don't exactly see how you are able to extrapolate former Physics Nobel prizes to whether or not Asia is becoming a leader in science." You misunderstand me here. I am not extrapolating. I am looking at the now. This in reaction to Sascha's claim that Asia already has become the global leader in science. Again, don't get me wrong, I think it is pretty obvious that Asia can and will become a leader in science provided they get their act together. But the simple fact is: all data indicate it hasn't happened yet.   "you previously stated that physicists are smug because it would take billions of dollars to prove them wrong. Accepting that statement, can you perhaps not see that the countries that have spent such vasts amounts of money on Physics would naturally be the ones that come up with the breakthroughs deserving of a Nobel Prize." Sure, although there are exceptions (the last Nobel in physics required the investment of basically a few pencils and a cello tape), you need the capex to build scientific facilities. Where do you read I dispute this?   "I think Sascha made a good point in asking what difference it make where science comes from. Africa has countless other problems to handle without worrying whether or not they have a Nobel prize physicist. If eventually the African countries reach the prosperity level of Europe and the US, I think the distribution would be quite different." I would argue the opposite. It does matter where science comes from. As long as it doesn't come from all countries, something is fundamentally wrong with this world. How can anyone justify the status quo that deprives the majority of the world's population from the education and opportunities to reach scientific understanding? "Is the graph really a cumulative distribution graph? I find it difficult to interpret it as one." The graph is cumulative in the sense that the distribution (widths of the colour bands) as displayed at a given date, represent the total number of Nobel's up to that date
    vongehr
    You apparently only read the title of the post, otherwise why ignore the main point: what counts as scientific output in the first place? But I argued that already. Just about
    the last Nobel in physics required the investment of basically a few pencils and a cello tape
    Yes, and some petty things like transmission electron microscopes.
    vongehr
    "Sascha made a good point in asking what difference it makes where science comes from."

    Thank you for the flowers and especially for reminding people of what the post is actually about; you stress here the second main point I want to get across (seems some commentators have only read the title, so even putting the main point in bold font ain't doing no good).

    On the "difference it makes where science comes from": Science translates into power, e.g. military might. The US fears losing supremacy, being treated like they treated lesser powers. Thus, "science leadership" is naturally understood differently from what you and I might think it means or should mean. If you care about science helping humankind, you think science education and don't give a shit about whether cancer is cured first in Denmark or Namibia. However, if you want science happening on your soil because it is the best weapon, draining brains from your enemies is not just good, it is double good.
    Stellare
    I cannot spot Norway in your plot, but I know we have received a few. Not many, but more than 0. :-)

    In either case I strongly disagree with your statement:

    "any country that is insignificant on this plot is not a scientific leader by any standard."

    Both China and Russia for that matter, have published a vast amount of scientific work in their own languages. This scientific production is not accessible to the rest of the world, but it makes your reference to 'any standard' somewhat arrogant and even flawed.

    The West will learn soon enough that it is not particularly smart to underestimate the scientific capacity and profound knowledge in these countries. I'm just saying. ;-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Johannes Koelman
    "I cannot spot Norway in your plot, but I know we have received a few. Not many, but more than 0. :-)" Norway is indeed insignificant on this plot. Norway does have a few Nobels, but not in physics. In this discipline your country has gathered a total of one quarter of a Nobel, to be precise (Ivar Giaever, 1973). "Both China and Russia for that matter, have published a vast amount of scientific work in their own languages. This scientific production is not accessible to the rest of the world, but it makes your reference to 'any standard' somewhat arrogant and even flawed." I don't buy this Calimero-theory. Any results of real importance get discussed at conferences, and (ultimately) translated. "The West will learn soon enough that it is not particularly smart to underestimate the scientific capacity and profound knowledge in these countries. I'm just saying. ;-)" I don't think you can accuse me of underestimating non-Western scientific capacity. I have argued against gross overstatements of past and current science performance (the title of this blogpost is pretty pathetic), but I have also made strong statements about e.g. Asia's scientific potential. I join you in eagerly awaiting the scientific products that will reach the world at large when countries like China become scientific superpowers. The time will come, but not yet.
    vongehr
    the title of this blogpost is pretty pathetic
    You are right, it is almost as pathetic as using Nobels to judge scientific leadership. Of course I should have been more upfront and titled the piece "Asia Is Now Scientific Leader!"
    Ashwani Kumar
    What is science? World over wasteful repetition of works is carried out like a copy cat and more so in areas with limited resources. If one improves local climatic conditions, helps provide conservation of biodiversity, prevent pollution at the local level using bioremediation, develop for local energy solutions, works on renewable energy resources or works on taxonomy of flora and fauna and their conservation with special reference to his country of origin and his "science " helps improve life of local population in some way or the other , he or she is contributing to science. There is no question of someone taking over other . Let us differentiate between science and scientific technicians . Science does not know national boundaries or nationalities but in my opinion it has to provide local solutions to local problems with global perspective. This may apply to all areas of research and development. Such science or scientists may or may not get Nobel "Noble prize" but would contribute to the growth and well being of humanity and conserve natural resources. A different parameter shall be needed to judge such people and their science.
    vongehr
    "World over wasteful repetition of works is carried out like a copy cat"
    Disagree - in fact the opposite is true. The current system discourages spending time on the mere reproduction of research to such an extend that a far too large portion of research goes through into accepted (peer-reviewed) knowledge without being actually reproducible, thus undermining the foundation of science.
    Aitch
    Sascha

    I am somewhat surprised at this idea that peer reviewed science becomes accepted knowledge without being reproducible.......
    I always took it, obviously mistakenly, that the very process of peer review, was to test the validity of claims, else, what point is there to such review process

    The very word re-view, means to look again!

    If the reproducibility/looking is not done, then review is a misnomer

    Aitch
    vongehr
    Yes, you look at the paper when writing it and reviewers look at it again, e.g. re-view if they are cited. Reproducibility checking is inherent when people build on your results. However, in many fields most work is never build on except for citing them. Moreover, it has nothing to do with peer review, which is a system effectively undermining reproducibility.
    Without novelty, work is rejected as done before. So you have the choice:
    1) Check your fluke results and see them go away, spend time verifying others' work, which if you find reproducible won't be novel; if you find it not reproducible, it proves that you suck in the lab (simply because the guy who claimed the crap or somebody who already cited that work positively reviews), and finally look for another job because you did not publish enough.
    2) Don't waste time on science, make your fluke result more believable by citing other people's crazy shit, put references to the ones who may likely review, don't discuss too deeply or reviewers get confused and reject your stuff as they have no time to actually review (they are busy writing papers), and turn into an established role model scientist with an awesome publication record proving that your group, university, or country is leader in scientific output.
    Aitch
    LOL

    Do I detect a little disdain on your part....?

    Aitch
    Aitch
    .......in my opinion it has to provide local solutions to local problems with global perspective. This may apply to all areas of research and development. Such science or scientists may or may not get Nobel "Noble prize" but would contribute to the growth and well being of humanity and conserve natural resources. A different parameter shall be needed to judge such people and their science.
    I think I agree with this, Ashwani, as the Nobel prize thing has become far too gamey, to non-scientists, and loses science its credibility, due to being too far removed from this 'local solutions to local problems, but with global perspective'

    People want to see science applied where the need is greatest, as evidenced by the huge public support for things like the 'Feed the World' campaign, the Rainforest Festival, World Education, Aids campaign, etc, which have grown out of pop culture events like WOMAD which stands for World of Music, Arts and Dance, and has brought all cultures to a global audience

    Aitch
    Ashwani Kumar
    Thanks for valuable comments. One has to see in global perspective and human welfare. The problem is” science” is repeated many times in many countries without purpose, direction or local needs. Some of the local problems have to be solved by local scientists in a global perspective. There can be three tiers of science in my opinion. Each tier of reseach has its own value and none is good or bad . First tier is for” big budget countries” who can afford “big budget laboratories”, or drug companies, medical research units, space research etc who are obliged to make original researches spending trillions of dollars. Second tier is by second level countries having “medium level budgets” and " limited resources laboratories" tying to adapt to the high level labs.. Third tier is countries or regions with" very limited level budget" and which are obliged to make many" choices" for their people before spending billions of dollars on research . Every level of research has its importance and value and impact factor and prizes are not the only parameter to judge it. Human welfare is . Matter of fact is that humanity requires ground level research to mitigate poverty of its people , provide basic amenities of drinking water, energy, irrigation, education and solve problems like like local pests, salinity , deforestation , local transport vehicles, local renewable energy systems which need involvement of local scientists and local laboratories and local pepole. Their research will neither be published in “high impact factor journals” nor will they ever get any prize akin to Nobel. But service to humanity will be their greatest reward. Mahatma Gandhi has once said" look and think of the poorest of the poor people whom you have seen during the day and think what have you contributed to improve his situation" (and I like to add that a scientist must think at the end of the day how his research is going to uplift his life and living ). But to provide local solutions in global perspective will be greatest contribution and Asia has not to compete with US or Europe but to develop its own avenue of research to help its people mitigate their day to day life problems of food shelter, disease, health transport and communication, productivity etc.