Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a dramatic speech to the world on Monday evening in an attempt to prevent Iran from overtaking Israel in the nuclear arms race. But in one area Iran has already passed Israel – and by a big margin: Over the past two decades, Iran has been making great efforts to become a scientific superpower and its research and development productivity has risen by exponentially, leaving Israel far behind in measures of production of scientific research.
Twenty years ago Israel was the clear leader in scientific research in the Middle East, and one of the world leaders too, in terms of the volume of scientific research. Since then it has fallen to fourth place in the Middle East, after Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Iran now leads in the number of scientific articles in many fields, such as physics, biology, chemistry and business administration. In the humanities, culture and art, Israel still maintains the top spot. In economic research, Israel has fallen behind Iran and Saudi Arabia too.
Nonetheless, Israel still leads rankings in quality of research, and is highly ranked internationally too. Israelis are also very highly ranked when it comes to how many times their work is cited in leading international journals. But this does not suggest other nations in the region will not catch up on these measures in the near future.
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The data is also not adjusted for population. This means Iran, with a population of 80 million people, produces more such research than Israel, with less than 9 million people. Regardless, in the past Israel still produced more scientific research in total than these other countries. In 1996, Iranians published only 960 scientific articles compared to about 10,000 by Israelis. Since then, the Iranian figures have climbed to some 41,000 a year, though per capita Israel still publishes more scientific articles than the other countries.
Turkey overtook Israel in the volume rankings back in 2003, and Iran in 2008, while in 2015 Saudi Arabia passed Israel.
The rise of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in such rankings reflects enormous government spending on such research as a matter of policy, not just to improve research but also to produce a more educated and skilled labor force. For example, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spent tens of billions of dollars on building universities to attract leading scientists and academics, even as Iran found it difficult to develop such ties due to Western sanctions against the country.
The data are taken from the SCImago Journal and Country Rank portal based on the Scopus database of peer-reviewed literature owned by scientific journal publisher Elsevier.