By Melissa Leach, STEPS Centre director

A new report by the Royal Society surveys the global scientific landscape in 2011, noting the shift to an increasingly multipolar world underpinned by the rise of new scientific powers such as China, India and Brazil. Melissa Leach was on the Advisory Group for the report.

The Royal Society’s new report Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global scientific collaboration in the 21st Century shows how much and how fast patterns of science and knowledge production are changing. New players, both expected and unexpected, are emerging, while an increasing proportion of a growing scientific output depends on networks of collaboration within and between regions and across the world.

A key and welcome dimension of these changes is in contributing to greater diversity in science. As STEPS Centre colleagues and I have elaborated, this is essential to tackling complex global challenges like energy or food security, where no single line of inquiry or technological solution will do: we will surely need multiple pathways, fed by multiple sciences produced in diverse places. Such diversity is also vital to understanding how global issues like climate change or disease pandemics unfold in particular local contexts, and to finding solutions that are attuned to particular conditions and needs as they vary around the world.

Diversity is nowhere more important than in addressing the development problems of the economically poorest countries and people, including in Africa – and to issues of poverty and distribution. African countries do not yet figure in the global top ten of scientific nations, as measured either by numbers of publications or their citations. Yet the report shows that many of them are expanding their investments in science too, especially in areas like health and agriculture which are central to addressing national and local development needs.

Uganda, for example, produced 116 scientific papers in 1996 but 477 in 2008; a huge expansion, albeit from a low baseline. African Ministers have declared 2011 the start of a decade for African science, with a national investment target of 1% of GDP. African countries are also collaborating more extensively, both within the continent – with South Africa intensifying its position as a hub of knowledge networks on the continent – but also with Europe and the US, while a new science and technology partnership established with China in 2009 suggests that science may become a growing element of intensifying China-Africa relations. But who is setting the terms of such collaboration, and how can we be sure that it genuinely meets the development perspectives and priorities of people in Africa, including those who are poor and marginalised?

The report did not set out to address questions of politics and governance in science, yet these will clearly be crucial. So too is capacity-building. As the report notes, this is important to enable poorer developing countries and their scientists to benefit from, draw on and apply global scientific knowledge, and to be in a position to collaborate. At the same time, collaboration can also build capacity, as scientists from European and African university or government institutions, for instance, work together and learn from each others’ respective skills and experiences.

I would add that capacity development also needs to address power relations, to enable poorer countries and localities to collaborate on more equal terms: for African scientists, for instance, to set agendas in collaborations and gear these to local views of what is scientifically interesting or important – rather than collaborating out of funding need in agendas framed by others.

Addressing global challenges such as those highlighted in the report, as well as their local manifestations, can often benefit from combining ‘natural knowledge’ with social, economic or political science, as well as with forms of local knowledge – farmers’ science, citizen science. The publication data that the report used, from Elsevier’s Scopus database, does cover social sciences and humanities – although these accounted for only 8.9% of articles considered. An interesting further analysis might explore the relationship between patterns of global collaboration and patterns of multi- and inter-disciplinarity, asking which scientists where are linking with others not just to combine perspectives within disciplines, but across them.

Significantly, though the data do not cover a large range of sources outside peer-reviewed articles in international journals where these vital strands of science-related knowledge might be found: local and regional peer-reviewed journals, grey literature, project and NGO reports; practitioner newsletters, online networks that link farmers, citizens and local innovators, and local language publications. 18% of the Scopus papers covered are not in English, but this is the tip of a large iceberg of local language publication. The knowledge found in this array of sources often meets standards of scientific rigour and is an important part of the global picture – yet one that remained uncaptured by the report’s methodology.

More effective means and metrics for capturing these contributions to the growing global scientific field are clearly needed. In turn, this should lead to better assessment of – and potentially action to stimulate – investments and collaborations in science geared to development goals.


>>Royal Society: Knowledge, Networks and Nations
>> Download the ‘Knowledge, Networks and Nations’ report (PDF)
>> STEPS Centre: A New Manifesto