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Brick by Brick

Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Korea are experiencing increases in research spending and publication rates. Catie Lichten asks whether big numbers also mean better science.

The so-called Brick nations, with their swelling GDPs and nascent R&D programmes, are carving out distinct research profiles and catching up with the big players, according to a report by media firm Thomson Reuters.

The report, Building Bricks: Exploring the global research impact of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Korea, shows that these nations, especially South Korea and China, are closing the gap separating them from those European and North American countries that dominated research in the second half of the 20th century.

While the GDPs of all Brick nations have increased dramatically in the past three decades, both China and South Korea have also substantially increased the portion of GDP they spend on R&D, the report shows. And while the percentage of R&D spending in Brazil, India and Russia has remained relatively constant, the increase in these countries’ GDP means they are still spending more on research.

Increased scientific publication has accompanied the boost in spending. In 2007-11, publications from the Brick countries rose to make up more than 20 per cent of the world’s output. Of this, more than half came from China alone, with publication output rising sixfold between 2000 and 2011. Research impact has also been on the rise in all five countries, based on publication citations, suggesting that increased spending on R&D is leading not just to more output, but also to better quality.

A closer look at the publications and patenting data, however, shows that the countries are spending money differently. “Everybody talks about the Bricks and their [joint] economic impact, but you realise looking at the data that they’re quite different animals,” says Jonathan Adams, director of R&D for Thomson Reuters’ scientific research division and one of the report’s authors.

“The growth of China is enormous, and that comes out clearly by seeing where it started from and how it’s overtaken others,” Adams says. “India theoretically should have the same capacity, but although it has space and nuclear programmes, the overall performance of the research base is extremely patchy.”

Another country that stands out is Brazil, based on comparing its output with world output in each scientific field. Brazil publishes most actively in the life sciences, in sharp contrast to the other Brick nations, which publish most actively in physics, chemistry and materials science.

Although Brazil produced large portions of the world’s papers in agricultural research and plant and animal sciences during 2007-11, its highest impact papers, on average, are actually in physics and mathematics. Russia’s relative output and impact are both highest in physics, and South Korea excels in materials science.

South Korean researchers are also prolific in computer science and engineering. Adams says that South Korea has set itself apart because “it’s very focused on development and application, and is relatively light on pure research”.

South Korea and China together accounted for 84 per cent of the patents filed by the Bricks in 2010, and China overtook the US for number of patents filed in 2011. But Bob Stembridge, an intellectual property analyst and one of the report’s authors, says China’s government patent incentives “stimulate people to file anything and everything”.

The publication and patent data, the report’s focus, are often used as barometers of research performance. But Stembridge and Adams say what is needed now is better data about the people behind these figures.

“The driver to both the generation of knowledge and the exploitation of that knowledge in patents…will come from the people,” Adams says. Whether these people choose to stay in their home countries has major implications for the countries such as the US that depend on “imported intellectual capability”, he adds.

But because countries may not all define and count researchers in the same way, “that’s the area that’s most open to interpretation,” Adams explains.

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