06 April 2011

The center of knowledge

A BBC report making the rounds last week suggests China will soon overtake the United States in science. The article is perhaps a little too quick to declare a new champion.

The figures are based on the papers published in recognised international journals listed by the Scopus service of the publishers Elsevier.

In other words, this is a measure of quantity, not quality. Quantity is important, but there have been numerous articles suggesting that there are some systemic problems with Chinese publications, not the least of which is rampant plagiarism. For instance, here’s a Nature article from last September about Chinese journals:

Wu Haiyun, a cardiologist at the Chinese PLA General Hospital in Beijing, says that only 5–10% of these journals are worth saving, and the rest are “information pollution”.

About a month later, Nature said this in an editorial:

Lack of monitoring and regulation in China means false CVs and scientific misconduct are rife there.

It’s because of reports like these that when we want to joke about low-impact journals in our department, we use the Chinese Journal of Irreproducible Crap as our (made up) example of a crummy journal.

Still, I do agree that all the trends are pointing to China emerging as a scientific leader.

But I’m interested in a bigger question: What are the factors that make a place a hotbed for ideas?

When Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke on our campus last week, he spent some time talking about why so many of the visible stars in the night sky have Arabic names. And this he traced back to a period around the turn first millenium when Baghdad was the undisputed centre for learning and scholarship in the world.

What I find interesting is that such centres of innovation and learning have cropped up and moved repeatedly over the years.

Alexandria was once the place intellectuals went to to learn. Athens held the title for a long time. You almost can’t think of the word “Renaissance” without thinking of Italy. And who would have picked Scotland as an intellectual powerhouse of the 18th century?

When I wrote about peak science last month, I was speculating on whether there might some limits on how much scientific investigation we can do. But while I think the claim is too bold globally, does this pattern of one location becoming the world’s “intellectual capital” for a few decades, then fading, show that the “peak science” hypothesis holds locally?

What factors lead to a city or country becoming a recognized place for scholarship? Is it an unpredictable “lightning in a bottle” effect, where by sheer chance, you get a small critical mass of hard-working, bright individuals?

Or are there common factors in all of the great centres of learning throughout history? For instance, is it just about money? Do intellectual revolutions occur in cities and countries with the most booming economies? Tyson seemed to argue that it was more than that, saying that there were several examples of countries that were world powers, but not intellectual centres.

It would be fascinating to put global statistics on research papers, patents, research investment, percent of population with university degrees, and similar indicators, on Gapminder. The only thing I can find that seems related to universities is “Expenditure per student, tertiary (% of GDP per person).” Paging Hans Rosling...

I’m sure this would be a question ripe for exploration. Does anyone know if there are history books written yet on the historic centres of learning? Because it seems to me that there might be lessons for the United States and China in looking at what happened to those ancient (and not so ancient) centres of learning.

Photo by hexodus... on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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