There are revolutions and there are revolutions. Those sweeping across the Arab world hold out the possibility of breakthroughs that may improve the lives of millions and remake the geopolitics of the region. But there are other revolutions more difficult to capture on camera but far more sweeping in their implications, revolutions that can change the lives of billions and remake the geopolitics and the very economic and technological fiber of the planet.
We know the familiar signs of revolutions in the Middle East. Crowds assembled in public squares. Banners. Nervous governments sending out troops or shuffling cabinets. But the signs of these other revolutions are subtler, harder to spot.
Take for example a story carried by the BBC yesterday that will not earn its own logo and theme music from TV news producers, but which has profound implications whether measured in terms of the changes it portends or the number of lives it may potentially impact.
In that story, it is reported that China is on a course to pass the United States by one important measure to become the world’s leader in scientific research within two years. It cites a study by the Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, that analyzes publication trends in scientific literature.
Citing the shifts in the world’s scientific output as "dramatic", the Royal Society’s report observes, "The scientific league tables are not just about prestige — they are a barometer of a country’s ability to compete on the world stage."
The report reveals that whereas in 1996, the U.S. produced approximately 290,000 scientific papers and China produced just over 25,000, by 2008, the United States had crept forward to just over 316,000 whereas China had increased to about 184,000. While estimates as to the speed China is catching up vary, the report concludes that a simple straight-line projection would put the Chinese ahead of the United States … and every other country in the world … in output by 2013.
How did China do it? Simple: They made it a priority. They increased research and development spending 20 percent a year or more every year since 1999 and now invest over $100 billion annually on scientific innovation. It is estimated that five years ago, the Chinese were already producing over 1.5 million new science and engineering graduates a year.
This data resonates on many levels. It suggests a profound shift in the world’s intellectual balance of power. This shift is one that is historically linked to the economic vitality and consequent political and military clout of the countries that lead. It suggests a much better future for the people of the world’s most populous country and knock-on benefits for their neighbors and trading partners. It suggests a relative decline in influence for the U.S. And, for the people of the Arab world, currently struggling with their own revolutions, it suggests the only true path to real reform, opportunity and empowerment.
It is an axiom of history that the silent revolutions — like those that periodically come in science and technology — are far more important than the noisier, bloodier and more publicized political kinds. That’s why these subtle indicators of their progress can be even more momentous than the round-the-clock coverage of upheaval that seems to be dominating our attentions at the moment.
It is a certainty that the future of the world be far more greatly influenced by what is happening in a Chinese laboratory than what is happening in the Arab street.