Photo of Sao Paulo city

Aerial view of São Paulo in Brazil.Credit: SambaPhoto/Cassio Vasconcellos/Getty Images

Cities are the ideal setting for scientific exploration. They attract bright and diverse minds, buzz with creative activity, and can summon the capital to realize big ideas. But their potential can be stifled by social realities. Each of the five science cities profiled in this supplement are contending with problems of equity and engagement which, if not addressed, threaten their trajectories.

When it comes to the long-term viability of a science hotspot, local matters count as much as global positioning. Perhaps part of the solution lies in pursuing and rewarding the type of science that engages directly with local communities, and achieves impact.

San Francisco’s sci-tech revolution has contributed to soaring housing costs, which could undermine the California metropolis’s position as a leading region of innovation. Wuhan is at risk from talent-poaching campaigns by richer coastal cities, as the competition for research supremacy intensifies in China. The fault lines run deep in Cape Town, South Africa, where elite universities are under growing pressure to address inherited racial and gender inequalities.

At the global scale, some degree of benefit sharing is taking place. An analysis of highly-cited research reveals that the gap between top-tier and second-tier cities narrowed between 1999 and 2014. Similar trends are apparent in the Nature Index, which measures a city’s fractional count (FC), a metric for the share of contribution to the authorship of articles in 82 high-quality research journals.

In a highly connected world, cities can’t take success for granted. Even though Beijing has emerged as a dominant producer of high-quality research, for example, its share of China’s output has declined since 2012, as Nanjing, Wuhan and Guangzhou nestle in. Cities remain powerful units of scientific production, yet each urban centre’s capacity is subject to change. Staying on top means paying heed to more than research funding.