Archive for May 30, 2010

Turning the Tables

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on May 30, 2010 by telescoper

In Andy Fabian‘s Presidential Address to the Royal Astronomical Society (published in the June 2010 issue of Astronomy and Geophysics) he discusses the impact of UK astronomy both on academic research and wider society. It’s a very interesting article that makes a number of good points, not the least of which is how difficult it is to measure “impact” for a fundamental science such as astronomy. I encourage you all to read the piece.

One of the fascinating things contained in that article is the following table, which shows the number of papers published in Space Sciences (including astronomy) in the period 1999-2009 (2nd column) with their citation counts (3rd Column) and citations per paper (4th column):

USA 53561 961779 17.96
UK(not NI) 18288 330311 18.06
Germany 16905 279586 16.54
England 15376 270290 17.58
France 13519 187830 13.89
Italy  11485 172642 15.03
Japan 8423 107886 12.81
Canada 5469 102326 18.71
Netherlands 5604 100220 17.88
Spain 6709 88979 13.26
Australia 4786 83264 17.40
Chile 3188 57732 18.11
Scotland 2219 48429 21.82
Switzerland 2821 46973 16.65
Poland 2563 32362 12.63
Sweden 2065 30374 14.71
Israel 1510 29335 19.43
Denmark 1448 26156 18.06
Hungary 761 16925 22.24
Portugal  780 13258 17.00
Wales 693 11592 16.73

I’m not sure why Northern Ireland isn’t included, but I suspect it’s because the original compilation (from the dreaded ISI Thompson database) lists England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland separately and the latter didn’t make it into the top twenty; the entry for the United Kingdom is presumably constructed from the numbers for the other three. Of course many highly-cited papers involve international collaborations, so some of the papers will be in common to more than one country.

Based on citation counts alone you can see that the UK is comfortably in second place, with a similar count per paper to the USA.  However, the number that really caught my eye is Scotland’s citations per paper which, at 21.82, is significantly higher than most. In fact, if you sort by this figure rather than by the overall citation count then the table looks very different:

 

Hungary 761 16925 22.24
Scotland 2219 48429 21.82
Israel 1510 29335 19.43
Canada 5469 102326 18.71
Chile 3188 57732 18.11
UK (not NI) 18288 330311 18.06
Denmark 1448 26156 18.06
USA 53561 961779 17.96
Netherlands 5604 100220 17.88
England 15376 270290 17.58
Australia 4786 83264 17.40
Portugal  780 13258 17.00
Wales 693 11592 16.73
Switzerland 2821 46973 16.65
Germany 16905 279586 16.54
Italy  11485 172642 15.03
Sweden 2065 30374 14.71
France 13519 187830 13.89
Spain 6709 88979 13.26
Japan 8423 107886 12.81
Poland 2563 32362 12.63

Wales climbs to a creditable 13th place while the UK as a whole falls to 6th. Scotland is second only to Hungary. Hang on. Hungary? Why does Hungary have an average of  22.24 citations per paper? I’d love to know.  The overall number of papers is quite low so there must be some citation monsters among them. Any ideas?

Notice how some of the big spenders in this area – Japan, Germany, France and Italy – slide down the table when this metric is used. I think this just shows the limitations of trying to use a single figure of merit. It would be interesting to know – although extremely difficult to find out – how these counts relate to the number of people working in space sciences in each country. The UK, for example, is involved in about a third as many publications as the USA but the number of astronomers in the UK must be much less than a third of the corresponding figure for America. It would be interesting to see a proper comparison of all these countries’ investment in this area, both in terms of people and in money…

..which brings me to Andy Lawrence’s recent blog post which reports that the Italian Government is seriously considering closing down the INAF (Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics). What this means for astronomy and astrophysics funding in Italy I don’t know. INAF has only existed since 2002 anyway, so it could just mean an expensive bureaucracy will be dismantled and things will go back to the way they were before then. On the other hand, it could be far worse than that and since Berlusconi is involved it probably will be.

Those in control of the astronomy budget in this country have also made it clear that they think there are too many astronomers in the UK, although the basis for this decision escapes me.  Recent deep cuts in grant funding have already convinced some British astronomers to go abroad. With more cuts probably on the way, this exodus is bound to accelerate. I suspect those that leave  won’t be going to Italy, but I agree with Andy Fabian that it’s very difficult to see how the UK will be able to hold  its excellent position in the world rankings for much longer.