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Asia's Growing Army of Scientists and Engineers Is Increasing Its Share of Scientific Publications and Patent Applications

Asia is the home of more than half the world's population and includes the two most-populated countries. In the past two decades, Asian nations have been expanding and improving their educational systems at a faster rate than most other regions of the world. These facts, together with increasing R&D spending, are affecting the numbers of scientific publications and patent applications coming from the region.

Several Asian nations, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, not only match, but in many ways exceed Western levels of tertiary (university degree) education as measured by the proportion of 24-year-olds who hold first university degrees. Asians tend to study science and engineering (S&E) subjects more often than their U.S. or European counterparts and have been doing so in increasing numbers. Already by 1990, Asian production of bachelor degrees in engineering exceeded that of the United States and the European Union combined, and Asia continues to pull ahead. The United States and Europe are experiencing shortages of scientists and engineers, yet Asia appears to be producing them in increasing abundance.

Asian nations have a smaller overall stock of scientists and engineers than the United States and Europe combined. However, in the past decade, Asian nations have surpassed the United States in the total number of scientific and engineering (S&E) graduates and also in the number of doctoral degrees granted in S&E. Meanwhile, the West's advantage in numbers is declining. The rate of growth in the number of scientists and engineers at both the primary and secondary (doctoral) levels is greater in Asia than in both the United States and Europe. A look at the numbers of Ph.D. graduates by country confirms the trend. In 2001, the United States graduated 45.3% of Ph.D.s; India and China contributed just 12.8% and 14.3%, respectively. In just five years, the U.S. share has shrunk to 36.8%; China's has increased to 29.2%, and India's has increased to 14.4%.7

This rapidly growing army of scientists and engineers is increasingly contributing to academic output as measured by peer-reviewed publications. In 1999, Asia was well behind both the United States and the European Union in number of refereed publications in science and engineering. Since then, as shown in Figure 1-4, Asian publications have grown by 50%, those from Europe by 24%, and those from the United States by only 9.75%. As a result, Asia is now in second place, behind Europe and ahead of the United States.

Figure 1-4

Figure 1-4 Trends in number of scientific publications, by region, 1999–2005

Reproduced by permission from SCImago (2007). SJR: SCImago Journal & Country Rank. Retrieved June 11, 2010, from www.scimagojr.com.

Asians have also been actively maintaining their lead over the United States and Europe in the number of patent applications (see Figure 1-5). Of course, large populations partly support these high numbers, but several Asian nations have also demonstrated impressive results in terms of the number of patents per million of population, a commonly accepted measure of national innovation performance.8 In addition to Japan, considered a leader in innovation, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore are counted among the top 20 most innovative economies in the world. According to an authoritative report published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, both Taiwan and Singapore are expected to improve their ranking positions in the coming years, displacing several European competitors.9 The same report places India and China much lower in the innovation performance rankings (because of their enormous populations, neither country scores highly on measures based on per-million inhabitants). However, both nations are expected to improve their relative positions over the coming years, with China moving up by five positions in terms of both innovation performance (patents per million of population) and direct innovation inputs, which include R&D spending, workforce education, and quality of research infrastructure.10

Figure 1-5

Figure 1-5 Trends in number of patent applications, by region, 1999–2005

Reproduced with permission from WIPO Statistics Database.

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