This week’s guest blogger is James Wilsdon, Director of the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society since 2008. Prior to this, he was Head of Science and Innovation at the think tank Demos. His publications include ‘See-Through Science’ (Demos, 2004) ‘The Public Value of Science’ (Demos, 2005), ‘The Atlas of Ideas’ (Demos, 2007) and ‘China: the next science superpower?’ (Demos, 2007).
At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, China failed even to field a team. Eighty years later, in Seoul, they finished in 11th place. And in 2008, as Beijing played host to the most spectacular Olympics in history, China topped the table for the first time, with a tally of 51 gold, 21 silver and 28 bronze medals.
If this is what China can achieve in sport, how quickly can it become a leader in science and innovation? This is one of the questions that prompted the Royal Society’s recent report Knowledge, Networks and Nations. The report maps the global landscape for science in 2011 and charts the growing strength of nations such as China, India and Brazil; as well as the emergence of newer players in the Middle East, South-East Asia and North Africa.
In both science and sport, the Chinese government has set ambitious, long-term targets and mobilized vast resources to achieve them. Just as the $40 billion spent on the Beijing Games dwarfed anything that had gone before, so China is now at an early stage in the most ambitious programme of research investment the world has ever seen. Since 1999, China’s spending on R&D has increased by almost 20 per cent each year. It is now spending US$ 100 billion a year on research, and hitting its target of 2.5% of GDP by 2020 will require a further tripling of investment, to around $300 billion a year.
Quantity of input doesn’t necessarily result in quality of output, but these investments are starting to yield results. Since 1981, the number of peer-reviewed papers produced by China has increased 64-fold, and it is well on target to become the leading producer of scientific publications within this decade, perhaps as soon as 2013. China’s Olympic triumphs flowed in part from its careful targeting of medal-rich sports like gymnastics, shooting and judo. In the same way, it has focused its research investment on disciplines where the opportunities are greatest.
Alongside globalisation, a second theme of the ‘Knowledge, Networks and Nations’ report is collaboration. The scientific world is also becoming more interconnected: over a third of all articles published in international journals are internationally collaborative, up from a quarter 15 years ago. This is happening for a variety of reasons. Advances in communication technology and cheaper travel have played a part, but the primary driver is scientists themselves, seeking to work with the best of their peers and to access complementary resources, equipment and knowledge. So at a time when budgets in many countries are under pressure, our report makes a strong case for continued investment in collaboration, as vital to high-quality research, and to our capacity to address the big social and environmental challenges that we face today.
Science policy at the Royal Society
The ‘Knowledge, Networks and Nations’ report is one recent example of the contribution that the Royal Society makes to public policy. We’ve been doing this for a long time: our earliest report, on the state of Britain’s forests, was delivered to King Charles II back in 1664.
But today, scientific advice to underpin policy is more important than ever before. In 2009, the Royal Society established a Science Policy Centre to strengthen the independent voice of science in UK, European and international policy. Each year we publish half a dozen reports, usually produced by groups of our Fellows and other experts. We also run workshop and seminars, as well as engaging directly with policymakers and with the media.
Above all, we want to make the Royal Society a hub for debate about science, society and public policy; to act as ‘honest brokers’ of the choices that confront scientists and policymakers in the 21st century.
Last year, the Royal Society celebrated its 350th anniversary. As historians such as Steve Shapin have described, in its early years, the Royal Society was a ‘house of experiment’. Hooke, Boyle, and the Society’s other founders – ‘ingenious and curious gentlemen’ as they styled themselves – met regularly to conduct experiments, to peer through newly-invented telescopes and microscopes, and to dissect strange animals.
Today, while the Society funds the work of several hundred research scientists through its grant schemes, no actual experiments take place within its four walls. Science moved out long ago into the universities and corporate R&D labs. But in other ways, the Society remains a house of experiment. Only now, the experiments that take place are in those messy and contested commons and borderlands between science, politics and society.
This, as I see it, is one of the primary responsibilities of a national academy of science in the 21st Century – to be honest and open in our recognition of the shifting politics of knowledge. To ask and to help answer the burning social, ethical and political questions raised by and for science today.