Where Science is Born: Why Certain Countries Produce Better Physicists

Lewis Nixon.

If we are to build magnificent buildings, we require great builders. If we are to construct incredible machines, we require great engineers. Similarly, if we are to accomplish remarkable things in science we require great scientists, and by extension, great physicists. One way we can increase the quality of scientists we are creating as a society is to look overseas and compare. It must be that there are some systems that simply work better than others, and to not take note of these systems would be irresponsible. So which countries yield the ‘best’ physics students? And more importantly, how are they doing it?

It all depends on how we define the ‘best’ physicists. At first glance, one might think that the best indicator to determine which country produces the best physicists is by looking at how many times each country has had a citizen receive the highest accolade in physics; the Nobel Prize. According to our societies recognition, this is the highest achievement and therefore reserved only for the crème de la crème of physicists. With 65 of the 203 winners being US recipients since 1901, it’s a pretty clear-cut indicator (Germany comes second with over 30*[1] and the UK in third with 22). [1]

But it’s an indicator that should be taken with a rather large pinch of salt. If we want to build an accurate description of which countries are producing the best scientists, we should look at modern time scales. Observing the past 100 years can be misleading if we want an idea of how well countries are performing now. However, looking at modern timescales is also somewhat fruitless. For example, the last 15 years do not provide enough laureates to be deductive. Moreover, the ‘best’ physicists may not actual be receiving the awards at all. There is a large population that believes that the Nobel prizes are biased and Eurocentric. [2] [3]Even if this were not the case physicists must still dodge the casket long enough for their discovery to be proven prize-worthy – as Nobel prizes are reserved for the living. Such recognition is a feat which may take decades. More importantly, however, Nobel prizes often ignore the decades of incremental work leading up to a Nobel prize winning discovery, bypassing any credit to all the great physicists before the Laurette winner. [4]

Citations may provide greater insight. If we characterise the best physicists as those carrying out the most influential research, then surely a lot of citations is the mark of a well-trained scientist. Essential Science Indicators at Thomas Reuters illustrate a result remarkably similar to that of the Nobel prize standings –  from 2001-2011 the USA dominated with over 48.8 million citations, with Germany again following with over 10.5 million and the UK being a mere few thousand lower than Germany. [5] [6] It is worth noting the next closest followers were Japan, France, Canada and China; all of which have at least 3 Nobel prizes in physics.

It is also informative to look at the number of citations per paper. Switzerland tops the chart with a staggering 16.90 citations per paper, trailed by Denmark with 16.05, then by the US, the Netherlands and Scotland. Citations per paper are arguably a much more reliable indicator of which countries are producing the better standard of papers as it takes into account each countries populations. It may be the case that a country with a huge population is producing many papers and therefore many citations, but this does not necessarily mean these papers are of a greater quality. It is, of course, important to remember that even a large amount of citations is not necessarily considered to mean higher quality research, as different fields may naturally mandate a higher number of citations.

Global university rankings may provide their perception as to which country hosts the best physicists. The HEEACT lists highest ranked universities worldwide by subject regarding ‘performance of scientific papers.’ In 2016 the top 25 rankings featured universities from the US, Japan, England, France, China, and Switzerland. [7] The QS ‘top universities’ top 25 physics and astronomy rankings for [2]2016 included universities from the US, England, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and Singapore. [8] The appearance of Singapore seems surprising, as it does not even appear on the top 20 for countries with the highest number of Nobel laureate’s or citations per paper, but Singapore is a relatively young country and is yet to develop a ‘research culture.’ Its appearance in the list is likely a result of there being other factors that affect the ratings, namely ‘academic reputation’ and ‘employer reputation.’ [9]

There is an abundance of overlap between these indicators, so what exactly is making these countries yield convincingly better physicists?

If the adage money makes the world go round is anything to go by, then perhaps it makes some parts go round better than others. The amount of funding might be a key factor for creating better physicists, and this wouldn’t be a surprise. Greater funding would result in many advantages, including better research facilities and equipment, a higher standard of teaching in schools and universities, and being able to pay the salaries for many more researchers. It may not come as a surprise that all 11 of the countries already mentioned in this piece* are part of the 35-member OECD, a group founded to stimulate economic progress. [10] Moreover 10 of these 11 have been listed in the top 20 countries for percentage of GDP invested in education from the years 1980-2012. [11]

Moreover, all 11 of these countries were in the top 20 for the highest percentage of GDP invested in research and development in the ‘science, technology and innovation’ category. [12] We can, therefore, come to the deduction that there is a clear correlation between how much we spend on our education and research to the quality of our physicists. It is also interesting to speculate that China’s low investment into education yet high investment into research, may be the reason why China produce such a large amount of papers, but a low amount of citations per paper; the research is clearly being done, but apparently by less well-educated scientists. Of course, China also produces a lot of papers due to their large population, but India for example (with a population size just over 90% of China’s value) don’t produce nearly as many papers (about 28% of China’s amount). [13] Conversely, Greece, who spend a large proportion of their GDP on education but a small amount of their GDP on research and development, produce fewer papers but to a higher quality; Finland, for example, produce more papers than Greece with roughly have the population size.

But not all countries follow this simple economic trend, and there are more factors to consider. Following the Cuban revolution (1959), education expenditure became a much greater priority. As a result, literacy levels went from 35-45% at the start of the twentieth century to 99.8% in 2004. [14] [15] Despite investing so much into education – more than any other country in fact [11] – Cuba has a low number of citations per paper. [13] This may be because of language differences; by publishing mainly in Cuban Journals Cuba’s research may only be documented in Spanish and therefore not accessible to many European and North American countries that dominate the research environment, therefore resulting in poorer circulation. Language barriers could also offer an explanation why China, has a low number of citations per paper, despite being a world superpower and therefore perhaps expected by many to set the benchmark for research quality.

Beyond simple language barriers, the idea of better global communication leading to a country having better scientists than those with weaker communication seems like a logical concept. By attending conferences or working overseas, scientists are open to a greater range of information and experiences. In the example of Cuba, its political relationship with the US may have made a drastic difference in its quality of scientists. In fact, it wasn’t until the 28th of November 2016 that the first commercial flight from the US to Cuba took place since 1961; up until recent transport capabilities were greatly hindered. [16] Moreover, due to a trade embargo imposed in 1960 many textbooks, journals, and lab equipment were made much more inaccessible, lowering research capabilities. [17] Perhaps most encumbering, though, is Cuba’s – and indeed many other countries – inability to connect with the rest of the scientific world via the internet. It comes as no surprise that the countries mentioned in this article as being great producers of scientists are also part of the population with the highest percentage of internet users. [18] Being unable to access or share large amounts of data and information results in an undoubtedly weaker research community.

It would also make sense to question what motivates individuals to go to universities to further their academic careers in the first place. From my experience, I decided to study physics for two reasons. Firstly, the career prospects. There is certainly a dogma within the UK that an STEM-based degree will open many doors, and for me, the idea that a reasonably well-paid job was waiting for me at the end of 3 years of studying was very appealing. Globally, countries with high unemployment rates such as Greece, Spain, and Kenya produce a high number of citations per paper, and it would, therefore, appear that the quality of science being conducted is not being affected. However, these countries do appear to produce fewer documents than countries of a similar population with lower unemployment rates. [13] [19]

The second reason I decided to study physics was that I enjoyed the subject more than any other subject that I had studied before. Physics captured my interest not only because I had fun and engaging teachers but also because I had a ‘natural’ interest in the topics which I believe had been embedded in my personality from a range of external mediums.  From a young age, we are engrossed by techy superheroes and advanced alien races on the television and from our toys. We are taken to museums by our parents which, at a young age, fill us with marvel and curiosity. As we grow up the world around us shapes our interest, and although it is difficult to determine how different cultures experience this effect, it is still thought provoking. Famous figures like Brian Cox and Bill Nye engage us and make us want to learn, magazines like ‘Physics World’ and ‘Science’ stimulate our minds and make us consider questions we never thought to ask. Even popular television shows such as ‘The Big Bang Theory’ are constantly changing the way physics is perceived to the members of the country exposed to them. I would even go as far as to say that there is quantitative evidence of this phenomenon taking place through the gender imbalance among UK physicists. It is likely not a coincidence that both scientific media and my university lectures are dominated by a male presence. [20]

Subsequently, it would seem that the countries wishing to spread their wings on the scientific scene there is a combination of factors they must take care of before they can do so. It would appear that some of the most important steps include prioritizing a significant amount of funding towards both education and research & development, permitting for more equipped scientists to be produced and allowing them to utilize their skills with better research facilities. Moreover, many top scientist-producing countries communicate with one another, taking advantage of linguistic capabilities when possible. Enhanced communities and healthier political relations mean better opportunities for scientists to better themselves, whether this is in the form of travel prospects, internet accessibility or by trade for vital materials. On a domestic level, the unemployment rates within a country result in the quality of its scientific output being seemingly unchanged but the amount of papers being published becomes noticeably smaller. Conversely, it is my opinion that by creating a culture which encourages a greater interest in physics, through a variety of media accessible at a variety of ages, more individuals are likely to embark on a path of academia, resulting in a greater number of skilled physicists.

  1. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/countries.html
  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/11148871/Nobel-Prize-winners-in-peace-literature-physics-chemistry-economics-mapped-gender.html
  3. http://io9.gizmodo.com/this-map-of-nobel-prize-winners-shows-a-disturbing-leve-1446346273
  4. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/nobel-prize-2014-inventor-of-the-red-led-hits-out-at-committee-for-overlooking-his-seminal-1960s-9782948.html
  5. http://archive.sciencewatch.com/dr/cou/2011/11decALL/
  6. http://hcr.stateofinnovation.thomsonreuters.com/
  7. http://nturanking.lis.ntu.edu.tw/DataPage/TOP300.aspx?query=Physics&pagesize=50&y=2016
  8. http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/university-subject-rankings/2016/physics-astronomy
  9. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/no-sleep-for-singapores-universities/2009064.article
  10. http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/statistics
  11. http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/expenditure-education-public-gdp
  12. http://data.uis.unesco.org/?ReportId=2658#
  13. http://www.scimagojr.com/countryrank.php
  14. http://www.unesco.org/education/GMR2006/full/chapt8_eng.pdf
  15. http://www.unesco.org/education/GMR/2007/Full_report.pdf (page 215)
  16. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/11/28/flight-cuba-fidel-castro/94555668/
  17. http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/September-October-08/On-this-Day–Eisenhower-Places-Embargo-on-Exports-to-Cuba.html
  18. http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2016.pdf
  19. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/country-list/unemployment-rate
  20. https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/uploads/wise/files/WISE_UK_Statistics_2014.pdf


*  It is difficult to say exactly how many Germany have won due to border changes and areas now having different names to    when they were won e.g. Prussia.


*  US, UK, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark, The Netherlands, France, Canada, China and Singapore

Where Science is Born: Why Certain Countries Produce Better Physicists

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