The North–South divide in economic development is often matched by a North–South divide in science and technology. Governments in the North and the South, as well as international donors, have at last grasped the reality that science and technology are crucial to building a nation's institutions in areas such as transport, agriculture, health, law and industry.

However, in strengthening their scientific and technological base, developing countries have tended to focus on agricultural research, biology and genetic engineering, space science, and information and communication technologies. One of the most important sciences underpinning development — physics — is barely on the economic development radar screen.

Ignoring physics is a mistake not only because of its fundamental contributions to all science, but also because national capacity in physics correlates strongly with economic performance.

An assessment of the state of physics in a country can shed light on how successfully it is developing and will develop in the future, particularly a nation's ability to make use of advanced technologies. China, for example, accounts for 3% of the world's trade in high-technology goods and services, which is the highest percentage among developing countries. India accounts for 1% of global trade in high-technology goods and services, which is the second highest percentage among developing countries.

It should come as no surprise that these two countries also the rank first and second in the developing world in the physical sciences — as measured by various indices, including articles published in international peer-reviewed journals and patents. The fact is that most high-technology products and services — computers, scientific instruments, electrical machinery and electronics — are based on research and development in the physical sciences.

How well are developing nations doing in physics? A good measure of a nation's capability in any science is the number of articles published by its scientists in international peer-reviewed journals.

In 2006, physicists in the developed world authored over 80% of the physics papers published in international peer-reviewed journals. Physicists in the USA alone were responsible for 18% of the total (32,000 articles).

Meanwhile, physicists in developing countries, which are home to 80% of the world's population, authored 20% of physics papers. When you consider that three developing countries – China, India and Brazil — are each responsible for approximately 1% of the total published every year, the situation looks a lot more dismal for other developing nations. Indeed, only 28 of them publish more than 100 physics papers a year in international journals. The contribution of the remainder, some 120 countries in total, is so small that it is not statistically significant. These include many of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The OIC states are home to some 1.5 billion people. Yet, physicists in OIC countries are collectively responsible for just 3% of the peer-reviewed articles published in international journals.

Governments and scientists from developing nations who are seeking a way out of this hole could look to China, which has increased its contribution to the worldwide total of peer-reviewed physics papers from about 4% to just over 14% in the past decade. Are there lessons here for other developing nations?

One lesson is that China and the five other developing countries that are most advanced in physics — Brazil, India, Iran, Mexico and Turkey — all focus on the same three subfields of the discipline: condensed matter physics, followed by optics and nuclear physics. Another lesson can be found in the development of scientific hardware. For example, China is home to state-of-the-art physics instrumentation. This has helped the country to transform its capacity in physics into technology products and services, which have helped to fuel the nation's growth.

The message is clear for all countries that are seeking to grow, and for all donors that are seeking to help them. Recent history shows that a nation's chances of technological development dim appreciably without a broad-based capacity in physics, and that without technological capability, sustainable economic growth often remains a faint hope.