Saturday, 22 March 2014

Science is global, so how do the nations compare?

Science is a global activity, it always has been, but as with most competitive activities, if we take a historical snapshot, there will be one or two countries that make the greatest contributions. If we look at Science from its origins, then the emergence of the foundations of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and medicine can be traced back to the Middle East, China, Greece and India. The early developments in Science where largely driven by a human desire to understand the motions of planets and the Natural world together with our own bodies. Moreover, the developments in mathematics by the Greeks and Babylonians; Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagorus and Kiddinu, had enormous implications for engineering, navigation and architecture. 

The next most significant period was probably the age of enlightenment during which time Galileo and Newton (amongst many others) developed a platform for modern, experimental science, founded on robust mathematics. From a biological perspective, I think most would agree that the development of the concept of evolutionary theory, alongside an appreciation of geological time scales set the stage and focus for our current experimental investigation of biological phenomena. I would encourage you to look at the many interesting internet resources (start with a search for the history of science and wikipedia). As a student, I was particularly taken with the 1954 book, Science in History by the eminent X ray crystallographer JD Bernal (pictured right), which provides a thoughtful and stimulating survey of Science through civilisation. I also recommend Jared Diamond's more recent book, Guns Germs and Steel as a scholarly study in why some humans seem to have acquired more "stuff" (or cargo, as he puts it!) than others. I shall post some books that you may wish to read in subsequent Blogs.

If we look at modern science, let's say the last 100 years, it has been a period in which time Newtonian physics has been overshadowed by quantum physics and molecular biology is beginning to challenge chemistry as the Science underpinning manufacturing; not forgetting the Turing-led computer revolution! So the first half of the last century was Euro-centric, whilst the second half was dominated by the USA. It is clear that cutting edge science is becoming increasingly global and is closely linked to economic power. So, whilst stem cell science surfaced in laboratories in the USA and Europe, the Chinese and Koreans are investing massively in these areas (see the 5 circles of patent hot-spots, top left). And those nations who manage to translate their investment in these contemporary scientific breakthroughs into wealth creation and sustainable improvements in the quality of life of their citizens, will surely be the dominant political forces in years to come.

I am going to take a look at how different nations and groups throughout the world conduct science through interviews and exchanges with professional scientists. For example, Professor Vladimir Kramarov and his longstanding colleague Dr. Konstantin Ignatov are two Russian scientists whose research on the development of novel application of enzymes in molecular biology, has been carried out under very challenging times in Moscow. They have agreed to give us an insight into Science in Russia. I will be talking first with Dr. Antal Kiss, from the Biological Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged (group photo left, Antal is on the right), whose group works on synthetic and systems biology, with a focus on engineering nucleic acid modifying enzymes. Despite the difficulties in obtaining laboratory funds in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the quality of the science in these two laboratories is remarkable, largely as a result of their commitment and passion for Science.  It is also a consequence of the great traditions of Science in Russia and Hungary and it is important to understand how different nationalities and cultures have contributed and continue to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge. I shall shortly give you an insight into work from these parts of the world through my UTC Blog site.

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