This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Department of Materials at that venerable institution, the University of Oxford. For one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world, such an age makes materials science a mere upstart of a subject. Even the oldest materials science departments only date from the beginning of the 20th century – although the Department of Materials at Imperial College London recently celebrated 150 years since its establishment as the Government School of Mines in 1851. Other metallurgy departments established themselves in the intervening years, many only becoming ‘materials science’ departments in or after the 1960s.

Materials has come a long way in that time, which is as it should be. Any scientific discipline that is progressing must, by definition, be constantly changing as it central tenets are tested, disproved, and new hypotheses postulated. No one reading this needs a lesson in the machinations of the scientific enterprise. But for subjects such as materials with its focus on the applied, and as one of the oldest of the engineering and applied physical sciences, has even more need to be constantly updating to remain central to the improvement of existing technologies and at the cutting edge of emerging ones.

So what of the future for materials science? Some recent bibliographic research carried out for Materials Today shows a dynamic field. The total number of authors publishing materials-related papers is increasing year on year. (So it is not just you that feels there is more and more information to keep track of, there reallyis more.) Not only that, but the ‘quality’ of that output (if you take the number of papers receiving a citation to be a measure of quality), is also increasing year on year. But here's where it gets interesting. The output from that powerhouse of scientific research, the USA, has not increased significantly in recent years (in fact, it showed a small decline at the beginning of this millennium). Instead, much of the current growth in the number of authors publishing papers in a materials-related discipline is being driven by China. Perhaps that doesn't come as much of a surprise, but what perhaps is surprising is that in areas such as ceramics, composites, and metals, China has actually overtaken the US, Japan, and the UK in its output. In areas such as polymer science and electronic and electrical engineering, where the US and Japan still maintain a significant lead, China is catching up.

So where will materials be in another 50 or 100 years? If it capitalizes on its involvement with nanotechnology, then it should remain at the cutting edge of technological development. Materials also looks set to become a truly global field. Let's hope in 50 years we are not only celebrating a centenary in Oxford, but the 50th anniversary of new departments around the globe.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71681-9