LONDON-If international science is a race, Great Britain is beginning to tire.
A study published this month shows a steady decline in Britain's scientific performance from 1973 through 1982. The decline is par-ticularly steep in physics, where the country of Maxwell and Lord Kelvin has been overtaken in many respects by France, West Germany and Japan.
The Royal Society conducted the study on behalf of the government's science policy advisers after earlier figures suggesting a fall in the country's scientific standing attracted wide attention in 1984.
The new study found that the picture is even bleaker than that drawn in 1984 from data about publications in the Science Citation Index. The Royal Society used material collected by Computer Horizons Inc. for the Science Indi-cators series presented by the U.S. National Science Foundation.
The 1984 report found that Britain's share of papers in a constant set of journals dropped from 9.2 percent in 1973 to 8.3 percent in 1982, with the Japanese share rising from 5.3 percent to 7.3 percent. The Society, counting citations for papers published in a given year, found that the United Kingdom's share had dropped from 10.9 per-cent in 1976 to 8.9 percent in 1982. West Germany, France and Japan showed citation increases for more recent papers.
The country's world share of physics papers, as recorded in Physics Abstracts, is below that for science as a whole, and is falling at a faster rate.
With respect to solid-state physics, the society used a combination of paper counts from Physics Abstracts and manual analyses of publications and citations in the Science Citation Index for work in the subfields of spin glass, quantum fluids and X-ray absorption fine-structure spectroscopy. In spin
glass, magnetic alloys in which the spins of the magnetic impurities are highly disordered, the United Kingdom had a strong influence on the field during the five years after its discovery in 1972. That influence declined as work in other countries expanded.
In both this specialty and throughout the field, the effect stems from the U.K. researchers publishing the same number of papers throughout the period while their competitors increased their output substantially.
The news is somewhat better in genetics and various subfields, as drawn from Biological Abstracts. The country's contribution to the life sciences is proportionately larger than in physics, and has held up better, with the United Kingdom holding onto its distant second-place ranking behind the United States.
These data contrast sharply with perceptions among scientists. Only 10 percent of geneticists, for example, assign the United Kingdom a current position among the world leaders, compared with a majority who thought British genetics was among the best in the 1960s.
Jon Turney is research associate in the Secretariat of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils.