The World's Leading Science Cities

A new study ranks the top cities for physics research around the world.

Science and technology are key drivers of economic growth. But where are the world's leading science cities? A new study published in Nature's Scientific Reports ranks the top cities for physics research around the world.

The study tracks the "citation patterns" of papers published in American Physical Society journals between 1960 to 2009. The researchers compiled a detailed "geolocalized citation network" dataset spanning more than 2,000 cities worldwide. They use these data to identify cities that are knowledge producers (using citations received as a proxy) and knowledge consumers (citations given).

Much has been made of declining U.S. economic and technological dominance and "the rise of the rest" of the world. Their findings indicate that the U.S. has lost substantial ground as the global center for physics. In the 1960s, the U.S. accounted for 85.6 percent of physics papers tracked by the authors; in the past decade, U.S. output has declined to 36.7 percent.

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The maps above, from the report, chart the changing global geography of physics production and consumption over the past half century. Cities that produce knowledge are red; those that consume it are blue. The study notes the substantial geographic dispersion of science that has occurred over the past 50 years.

"Physics knowledge was highly localized in a few cities in the eastern and western coasts of the USA and in a few areas of Great Britain and Northern Europe," they write. "In 2009 the picture is completely different with many producer cities in central and southern parts of the USA, Europe and Japan."

The same geographic dispersion has occurred in both the United States and Europe. Within the U.S., there has been a shift in scientific production from the "major urban areas" of the East and West Coasts to a broader geographic distribution which includes centers in the Midwest and South. A similar shift has occurred in Europe as well, from the United Kingdom and Northern European nations to southern centers in Spain, Italy, and France. A major shift has been the rise of China's major cities as substantial largest centers of knowledge consumption over the past decade. But this trend is not true across the other BRICS nations. The study finds that cities in Russia and India "consumed less in 2009 than 1990."

The table below, also from the report, shows the leading cities for physics ranked at five year intervals from 1990 to 2009 (click for larger image).

Despite America's overall decline, major cities and urban centers on the east and west coast remain the leading centers of physics over this period. The U.S. had 17 of the top 20 cities in 1990 and 14 in 2009. Several U.S. cities frequently rank among the top 20: Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area (Palo Alto and Berkeley), Los Angeles and Southern California, the New York metropolitan area (Piscataway, where Rutgers is located, and Princeton), New Haven, Philadelphia, Lemont, Illinois (Argonne National Laboratory), Chicago, Urbana (home to the University of Illinois), Rochester, Madison (the University of Wisconsin–Madison), and Columbus (Ohio State University). Interestingly, New York City proper fell out of the 2009 top-20 ranking altogether.

Outside the United States, Tokyo, Japan; London and Oxford, England; France's Paris and Orsay (home to the main campus of University of Paris-Sud, known for its concentration of science labs); and Rome, Italy numbered among the world's 20 leading scientific centers in 2009.

The big takeaway:  While science is becoming more distributed globally, its production at the highest level remains incredibly concentrated and spiky. Indeed, the world's leading centers of physics have remained essentially the same for the past three decades. While Chinese cities have risen as consumers of scientific knowledge (alongside their economic growth), it remains to be seen if they can become leading  producers of it.  

Great scientific centers not only require eminent universities and laboratories, they also require a broader environment of meritocracy and openness to diversity that can attract top talent from across the world. For this reason, it is unlikely that the world's leading science cities will change significantly in coming decades.

Adding to this, science is now more closely connected to economic growth than ever before. Ever since their inception, great universities and scientific centers were more a reflection of the wealth of cities and nations than a direct producer of such riches. Today, leading research universities function as veritable hubs of the knowledge economy:  The presence of major scientific centers has itself become a key source of innovation and economic growth. This is likely to lead to more concentrated innovation and economic development in the future, increasing the gaps between the world's scientific "haves" and "have-nots." Addressing the realities of this unequal and spiky world will become an even greater challenge for policy-makers across the world in the  decades to come.

Figures courtesy of study.

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here