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Canadian Science: By The Numbers

Regular readers will note that I’m fond of touting the high quality of Canadian science despite our many perceived handicaps as a nation (smallish population, widely separated institutions, latent inferiority complex, etc.) But how, I hear you virtually ask, can I possibly know this is true? Is there any data to back up this claim? Well, smarty pants, it turns out there is.

Sciencewatch.com is an arm of Thomson Reuters that keeps tabs on trends in published science papers and their impact on the scientific community, as measured by the number of citations. Periodically, they do a retrospective of papers from a certain country, comparing their quantity and impact to the world average. As it happens, this week they featured the True North Strong and Free.

According to their analysis, 4.68 per cent of all scientific papers published between 2006 and 2010 had at least one Canadian author. We were particularly strong in the field they designate as ‘Psychiatry/Psychology,’ where this percentage climbs to 7.75. Other notable fields include ‘Environment/Ecology’ (7.32 per cent,) ‘Geosciences’ (6.66 per cent,) and ‘Space Science’ (6.08).

As measured by impact (number of citations per paper) the results are even more impressive. The impact of our plant and animal scientists is 26 per cent above the world average, while the same value for our ecologists is 28. But it is (somewhat unexpectedly) our space scientists who appear to be the biggest superstars. Their impact level is a whopping 71 per cent above the world average.

All this sounds pretty good, you may think, but how does it compare to other industrialized nations? Unfortunately, that’s where things begin to falter. You see, the numbers I just quoted are really “teasers” put out by the good folks at Sciencewatch to interest you in their full database, access to which is likely as useful and informative as it is prohibitively expensive to lowly science scribes like me. However, by poking around in the free teasers section a bit more, I’ve managed to come up with a few (somewhat random and arbitrary) benchmarks. Our scientists handily whoop the collective behinds of their compatriots in Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Norway, Argentina, Hungary, Mexico, and the Czech Republic, but all those countries have much smaller populations and/or GDPs. As in the parallel arena of hockey, we handily beat Russia, but they’ve been on a downward slide ever since the 60s, culminating in Garry Kasparov’s chess-match loss to a computer in 1997. The only remotely fair comparison I could find was the U.K., who, predictably, beat us, despite our continuing efforts to woo star player Stephen Hawking to the Perimeter Institute.

Anyway, I also came across a national ranking from 2000 to 2010 which states that we are #6 for citations (5,414,223), #7 for papers (442,016), and #17 (12.83) for citations per paper. To be fair, that’s roughly where you would expect a G8 country with a slightly smaller population to be, but keep in mind this is an overall ranking; in individual fields that are particularly “Canadian” (agricultural research, geoscience, etc.) we probably do a bit better. At the very least, we can be confident that our scientists are among the best in the world, and their story deserves to be told. Keep reading, and you’ll hear more about it.

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