Infographic: How Scientific Ideas Flow Around The World

Data-visualization wiz Moritz Stefaner reveals the remarkable interconnectedness of international research institutions.

The old stereotype that scientific breakthroughs result from some lone rumpled genius toiling away in his basement laboratory hardly abides nowadays. Scientists collaborate. A lot. And in some unlikely ways, as this data visualization by the always-brilliant Moritz Stefaner (with support from agency onformative's Christopher Warnow) shows.


[The map on the right shows the Max Planck Institutes; the world map on the bottom shows the Institutes’ external research partners.]

Stefaner drew info from SciVerse Scopus, a database of more than 94,000 research articles published in the last 10 years, to reveal scientific partnerships around the world. More precisely, it shows how Max Planck Institutes (MPI), a network of nearly 80 prestigious research organizations spanning many disciplines (and Stefaner’s client on the project), team up with each other and international powerhouses, like Harvard and UC Berkeley. In effect, it’s a map of the international flow of ideas.

And boy do they flow. You’ve got evolutionary anthropologists working with everyone from psycholinguists and ornithologists to molecular biologists and brain scientists. You’ve got chemists publishing alongside meteorologists. And you’ve got some fierce devotees of unusual subjects: “The University Hawaii seems to be really into extraterrestrial physics,” Stefaner points out. (Likely due to the fact that one of the world’s largest telescopes is in Hawaii, at the Keck Observatory.)


[Touch an institute’s icon, and you pull up its most important collaborators. Note the streams of energy particles that accompany the maps -- a nice metaphor for the flow of ideas.]

It also provides some interesting insight into scientists’ working habits. “One thing we learned about were the very different publication behaviors,” Stefaner says. “For example, physicists often work on large experiments, with many people involved, so you end up having twenty authors on a paper.” Physicists: The social butterflies of the sciences. Who knew? “Mathematicians, on the other hand, publish less frequently and not in large groups," Stefaner says. (Okay, that we knew.)

The visualization is installed on a touchscreen at the Max Planck Science Gallery, an exhibition space open to the public, in Berlin. It was commissioned and designed to be an educational tool. “The big problems of our time can only be tackled if the different disciplines of science come together and are combined to find creative solutions,” Stefaner says. “We hope our visualization provides a sense of the importance of this issue, and also shows that much has happened already.”

In this respect, it could also be an important marketing tool. It allows the Max Planck Institutes to convey, with tremendous economy, the broad scope and influence of their work. That, in turn, could help attract more funding. God knows in this climate, scientists need all the help they can get.

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