Visualizing Scientific Collaboration
President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night threw several bones to the science and technology community. If the U.S. intends to compete globally and flourish economically, he said, the US will need to invest heavily in science research. "Winning the future," as the President put it ( time and time and time again), will require bold new programs on all fronts, from research on clean energy and biomedicine to information technology and STEM education.
Promising to send a budget to Congress that will incorporate ample funding in these sectors, Obama focused was clear about the mission: "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-compete the rest of the world."
This competitiveness rhetoric has a long history, and it may appease those alarmed by the rise of nations like China, India, Venezuela, and Brazil. But for scientists themselves—the ones driving these engines of competitiveness— it's collaboration that serves as the better barometer of success.
That idea is conveyed here in a map of Scientific Collaboration created by Olivier H. Bauchesne, a research analyst at the Montréal-based Science-Metrix. Inspired the Paul Butler's now famous Facebook map, Bauchesne realized that a similar graphic could be rendered from the data that he traffics in every day (Science Metrix licenses data from journal aggregators like Thomson Reuter's Web of Science and Elsevier's Scopus).
Bauchesne then used a Mercator projection to project the geographical coordinates onto a map and traced lines of collaboration between cities. The brightness of the lines, he says, is a mathematical function of the number of collaborations between a pair of cities and the distance between those same two cities.
From the brightness and density of connections, it's clear that European collaborations—both on the European continent and beyond — are among the most robust in the world. The US and Japan, too, are veritable Christmas trees of scientific cooperation, with both nations harboring robust city-to-city networks as well as linkages to the international community.
Whether this map, based on Scopus materials from 2005-2009, will retain this shape for long remains unclear. The most recent tally of US student performance in science and math, released just hours before Obama's Address, give ample reason to believe otherwise.
In a report titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5," the National Academies pointed out that American students still rank only in the middle of the pack when compared with their peers abroad and do poorly in applying science and math concepts.
According to the NAS, only 1 percent of fourth-graders and 12th-graders, and 2 percent of eighth-graders performed on the "advanced achievement" level. Overall, US mathematics and science K-12 education ranked 48th of 133 nations worldwide.
In a nod to these grave statistics, Obama's SOTU speech emphasized that innovation must be underpinned by better education. "If we want to win the future—if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas—then we also have to win the race to educate our kids," he said. He touted "Race to the Top," a competitive grant program in which states vie for federal money by on the basis of performance.
The irony here is quite literal. "Competitiveness" now suffuses the language coming from the White House—whether it is states competing for educational funding or nations competing in the global marketplace. Yet foundation for success in schools, and later in the workforce, depends heavily on working together. It's true, of course, that competition and collaboration aren't mutually exclusive—or even, as it first seems, opposed. But with our current national conversation awash in "winning" and "racing" and "out-competing," that kind of nuance isn't even relevant at this point. First, collaboration must enter the dialogue. As these visualizations indicate, the fallout wouldn't be a wimpifying of American culture. On the contrary, it could be something truly generative for US science, and as a result, for the world at large. Have your doubts? Just ask the Chinese .