Who is the next scientific superpower? Not USA

US Deficit Globe

Yes, it’s interactive. Go ahead. Touch it 😃.

The facts

US is bleeding scientists.
They all going to Europe, Canada and Australia.
Immigrants are the biggest producers of science in the US.
While 72.3% of researchers are native to the US.

Hi there,

How is the day going so far? Good? Procrastinating some work? I’m sure not, you are a professional! And, besides, this is work, isn’t it? Staying updated. Of course 😉.

Bold claims up ☝️ there. Let’s get to it.

How do I know this?

At SCITODATE (shameless plug incomming) we are experts at playing around with research papers. We collect them in the millions. We write smart algorithms to read them. We map out the scientific landscape. As broad as possible, as detailed as possible and as updated as possible (hence the name 😄).

Our day job is to make the life of research device producers easier, we find perfect clients for them. But after work, we like to explore a bit.

One of such evenings, I became intrigued by the way we researchers move around the world. It is no secret that researchers have to leave everything behind and go to a new country every few years. I keep seeing great scientists in their 40s struggling to get a permanent position. It’s a big deal, and I have the means to dig deeper, so I decided to.

After a few uninteresting plots, I came across this one.

Net Inflow (Top 15)

Let me explain ☝️. I wanted to measure how many people come in and go out of each country every year. I was interested in knowing where are scientist flocking to these days, so I computed the Net Inflow of researchers for each country (Net Inflow = Inflow - Outflow), and chose the Top 15 from 2016.

This all looks well and good. Most countries are going up, specially Western Europe, Canada and Australia, with Switzerland on the lead. You would think China would be king, like in everything nowadays, but it actually looks like it dropped from 1st to 10th place in a couple of years. Intriguing… Worth looking into.

But the US was suspiciously absent, so I added it.

Net Inflow (Top 15 + US)

Oh… Yeah… 😱

A note about the data

Before going any further I want to be clear about the sources I’m using. Bold claims are fun and all, but as a scientist I feel obliged to justify my claims properly.

The data has an inherent bias, a few. I will list the most notable ones. This is not bad, it’s natural. It’s just important to explicitly mention them and always keep in mind that we are seeing the world through this lens.

So, quickfire:

  • We have precisely 26,756,425 papers, steadily growing.
  • They are from multiple DBs, mostly PubMed.
  • PubMed is likely the biggest and most well maintained article database across science.
  • PubMed is mostly constrained to biomedical sciences.
  • PubMed is funded by the US government. There are more US papers in PubMed than otherwise.
  • More papers are written every year, more are published, more are digitalized, more are released openly.
  • Recent data has better quality. It’s cleaner and more complete.
  • In 2014 Medline started indexing affiliation strings for all authors, instead of only the first author in each paper.

We worked hard to make sure that none of our conclusions are affected by these biases (biasi?).

We do our homework.


Ah, and you might be wondering why all charts stop at 2016. Simple reason, it takes a while to publish papers. If we want to look at author movement, we need to check that they actually published a paper somewhere else, or that they actually stopped publishing. For both we need a reasonable waiting period, that’s where 2017 went.

Right. Now that we have the boring part covered,

Where did they come from? Where did they go?

(cotton eyed joe)

We all know that the USA has been an economic superpower for the last century. It has been the meeting point for ambitious people all over the globe, “the land of opportunity”.

This includes science and scientists. Some of the most prestigious universities in the world are in the US. Not to mention private R&D.

Let’s not kid ourselves, this is still the case, and will be for a while, but we are all starting to sense a shift. China has notoriously become a match in the blink of an eye. First the industrial superpower, and now a high-tech leader too.

But what about good ol’ Europe? We seem to be doomed to stay 2nd or 3rd forever. Economically, politically, that seems to be the case. However, we have always prided ourselves in being at the top of scientific progress. We may not have the brute force, but we have the smarts.

Unfortunately, this is kind of wishful thinking. We are not at the top, we haven’t been for a while. But huh, we actually might soon 😄.

Net Inflow (Top 15 + US)

Why though?? What happened? What is going on in the US? Why does China have a downward trend too? Or is it something positive that happened in Europe, Canada and Australia? Among others.

We hear things, but this seems to be a mostly silent trend, at least in my circles. I wish I knew. Data can answer many questions: What? When? Who? How many?. But “Why?” is usually not among them. What I can do is go a bit deeper, see if we can get a better understanding of what is going on.

I keep claiming that US has a huge researcher deficit to Europe, but I haven’t actually proven it yet have I?

US is bleeding scientists.
They all going to Europe, Canada and Australia.

All I have shown you is a plot where you can see a vague upward trend for most western European countries, and a big flop for the US. Where are all these US researchers actually going?

Well, let’s see. The following visualisation shows the flow of scientists in the US since the turn of the millennium. How many are coming in? How many out? And from where?


Maybe it’s a bit more clear if I unify all the European countries.

Sankey with EUROPE

You can see that in the last few years less people are coming in than are going out. However, you may notice this mass migration I’ve been talking about is conspicuously hard to spot. There’s still tons of researchers going from Europe and China to USA! And you’d be right to say it, because there’s no mass migration, the phenomenon is a bit more subtle.

You have to look a bit deeper to really see the trend, that’s probably why it’s not creating a lot of noise in the community. What I’m talking about is deficit.

It’s not a load of people suddenly saying: “Trump president? I’m out!” (we’ll come to that). It’s the complex combination of a subtle spike in outflow of researchers and a plateauing effect on the inflow.

Inflow outflow

The key is looking at things in terms of net numbers. So, many researchers are moving to from Europe to the US, and vice-versa, true, but who is winning in this exchange?

Here’s a similar viz. This time we are looking at the difference between scientists coming to the US and leaving from the US. If a country is on the left, it means that it is loosing researchers to the US. If a country is on the right, in turn, it means that US is loosing researchers to them.

Net sankey with EUROPE

Aaah! There it is! Do you see it now? By 2016, US is loosing 2K researchers to Europe each year, and this looks to be increasing! Overall, US is loosing researchers to almost everyone. Feel free to explore a bit more, it changes quite a lot year by year.

China is also strong in respect to the US, unsurprisingly. After all, China is offering wide benefits for high-skilled workers to come back home.

Here we have looked at scientists that arrived at the US in 2016 vs scientists that left the US in 2016. But what if we looked at scientists that left their previous country in 2016 to go to the US? This should give us a more updated picture.

Net sankey with EUROPE 2016+

Oh my 😱!! 40K yearly deficit to Europe!!!

Who is the one pulling all the weight around here?


We’ve talked about how scientists are moving on mass out of the US (and China) to Europe, Canada, Australia and a few others. But why does this matter? Seriously. Are these movements actually significant? After all, US still has, by far, the biggest number of academics.

# Authors

Up ☝️ there I said that the US is extremely dependent on immigrant scientists. Let me prove it to you.

Immigrants are the biggest producers of science in the US.

This is the segmented population of US researchers.

By origin

Surprisingly, a large majority of scientists are still US educated, or at least they published their first article with a US affiliation. There is a slight trend upwards on the percentage of foreign researchers, but this seems natural. It could even be a bias from our data sources.

While 72.3% of researchers are native to the US.

What is interesting is the following. This is the amount of papers published by each segment in the US.

Scientific output by segment

😱 What happened there??? As you can see, only 47.2% of the research output actually came from natives. This number was at 86.8% back in 2002! This means that it is a serious problem for the American industry if less scientists start coming and more of them start going back home.

To finish up, let’s do something naughty, and fun 😄. Here’s the productivity per researcher by segment, AKA, what researchers are the most productive in the US.

Feel free to draw you own conclusions 😅.

Per capita

Spoiler: US is the 58th 😉

We at least had 1000 authors for every segment. We made sure that the sample size is not too small.

What is going on though???

(speculation time!!!)

As I said ☝️, I cannot answer “Why?” with data. This is outside my area of expertise, I wont pretend to know the answer. However, I can answer “When?” questions, which might give us some clues.

It’s Trump!!!

😅 😅 I couldn’t resist. I bet you couldn’t either.

Believe me, we reaaally tried hard to show this is because of Trump. It just doesn’t fit.

The downward trend clearly starts during 2014–2015. So it’s not the Muslim immigration ban. Even if we assume that the mere possibility of Trump being elected would scare scientists away, which is unlikely, it still doesn’t fit, Trump announced he was running on June 16 2015.

So what then? You tell me!

Comment below if you have a good answer. I would love to hear.

Oh! You actually made it to the end! Fantastic! 😆

If you are still here, I’m sure you’ll be happy to share and follow and all that stuff! Pls.

Now you can go back to work, you lazy basterd!