Britain''s position as a centre of scientific research has remained remarkably strong over the course of the twentieth century and continues to the present day.
That is the conclusion of a study by economics professor Bruce Weinberg of the Ohio State University, published in the June 2009 Economic Journal, which tracks the trajectory of British science using data on Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Medicine, and Physics and other data on individuals who have made important contributions to science.
Weinberg''s study of scientific strength is particularly timely as Europe, the United States and the rest of the developed world increasingly look to innovation as a way of preserving economic strength.
Britain has historically been a net importer of Nobel laureate scientists so it is likely that the country will maintain its strong position. But Weinberg warns:
''There is a danger of resting on one''s laurels. The strength of a country''s scientific community rests, in large part, on the willingness of public and private entities to make the kind of investments in science that sustains an ongoing and highly competitive scientific market at a variety of levels.''
The twentieth century was a turbulent time for scientific leadership. When it began, Europe dominated science. Today, the United States does. Despite these changes, Britain is indeed an exceptionally strong scientific contributor, surpassed only by the United States and surpassing Germany and Japan, both larger countries than Britain.
Most of Weinberg''s evidence comes from data on recipients of the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics. In addition, Weinberg also uses on the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) Highly Cited, a database of individuals who have demonstrated great influence in their field as measured by citations of their work.
In keeping with the Nobel Prize data, Britain ranks second in highly cited researchers overall (Britain ranks second or third in all fields except Physics, where it ranks fourth). Together, this information points to Britain as a strong and stable centre for scientific research.
Weinberg''s data on Nobel laureates contain information on where people were when they did their prize-winning work in addition to where people were born or where they were living at the time they received the Nobel Prize. This makes it possible to analyse the extent to which Britain is a contributor to the fields of science.
Why is a country''s ranking as a scientific centre so important? Weinberg says:
''I regard Nobel laureates as scientific pioneers – and innovation is the foundation for industrial progress.''
''In many cases, scientific awards have paved the way for important new technologies –from the discovery of the electron (Britain, 1897) to the discovery of the structure of DNA (Britain, 1953) to work on embryonic stem cells (Britain 1981). These are truly significant discoveries of immense importance for mankind.''
''An Assessment of British Science over the Twentieth Century'' byBruce Weinberg is published in the June 2009 issue of the Economic Journal.
associate professor of economics at Ohio State University