The highly respected Nature Scientific Reports journal has just published a map of the world’s leading science cities, and it looks pretty bad for emerging countries: It shows the planet’s northern hemisphere full of lights, and the south almost solidly dark.
The map is especially significant because it’s not a subjective opinion by the magazine’s publishers. Far from it: It’s a study of more than 450,000 scientific articles and citations from more than 2,000 cities world-wide published in American Physical Society journals over the past 50 years.
The map shows that, despite a continued U.S. technological supremacy, the U.S. share of international academic physics papers has fallen from 86 percent in the 1960s to less than 37 percent now. There is a “delocalization of knowledge producers,” it says.
Boston, Berkeley, and Los Angeles are still the world’s leading centers of physics, but they are followed by Tokyo (Japan) and Orsay (France). The list of the world’s 20 leading cities includes several other U.S. urban centers, such as Chicago, Princeton and New Jersey, but also includes Rome (Italy), London (U.K.) and Oxford (U.K.).
Within the United States, there has been a gradual shift of knowledge production from a few selected East and West Coast cities to Midwest and Southern states, it says. Similarly, in Europe, there has been a shift from an overwhelming dominance by Britain and Northern European countries in the 1990s to a gradual rise of French, Italian and Spanish knowledge centers.
But there are no Latin American or African cities among the top 100 science-producing cities. According to Nature’s Scientific Reports article, 56 percent of the top 100 scientific cities are in North America, 33 percent in Europe and 11 percent in Asia.
Upon reading these figures, I called Dr. Nicola Perra of Northeastern University, one of the researchers in the study, to check whether I had read the table correctly. “Yes,” he said. “There are no Latin American cities among the top 100.”
One of the explanations may be that Latin American universities are pretty good in humanities, but relatively not that great in science and engineering, according to a separate ranking of the world’s best universities by subject that was released last week by QS World University Rankings, one of the most influential international university indexes.
There are three Latin American universities among the world’s best 50 in Philosophy (Mexico’s UNAM, ranked 32; Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo, 41; and Brazil’s University of Campinas, 44).
But there is not one single Latin American university among the world’s best 50 universities in physics, chemistry, engineering and computer science, which include several in China, India and Singapore, the QS rankings show.
Richard Florida, a University of Toronto professor who is an international guru on innovative cities, told me that he found Nature’s Scientific Reports map of the world’s leading science cities “really troubling” for the developing world.
It shows that despite all the talk about the rise of emerging countries, and despite the fact that science is becoming more geographically distributed globally, the gap between the world’s scientific “haves” and “have-nots” is not narrowing much.
That’s bad news, because we are in a knowledge-based global economy, in which science and engineering increasingly determine the wealth of nations.
“In the past, science was a reflection of countries’ wealth. Now, science is a producer of wealth,” Florida said.
My opinion: The new map of the world’s leading science cities should be hung in all Latin American universities and public buildings.
It would serve as a great reality check to counter many of the region’s presidents’ outlandish claims that their countries are becoming world-class science centers, and that their universities are among the world’s best.
True, Brazil, Mexico and Chile, among others, are starting to catch up with their respective plans to drastically increase student and academic exchanges with U.S. and European universities.
And it’s also true that many Latin American scientists — mostly individually — are excelling in the world’s leading universities. But most of them are excelling outside their native countries.
The map of the world’s leading science cities should serve as a powerful reminder of the phenomenal challenge facing countries in the region to join the ranks of the world’s leading science centers. Making it visible everywhere in the region would be a powerful remedy against complacency, and an urgent call to action.