China has experienced the strongest growth in scientific research over the past three decades of any country, according to figures compiled for the Financial Times, and the pace shows no sign of slowing.
Jonathan Adams, research evaluation director at Thomson Reuters, said China’s “awe-inspiring” growth had put it in second place to the US – and if it continues on its trajectory it will be the largest producer of scientific knowledge by 2020.
China far outperformed every other nation, with a 64-fold increase in peer-reviewed scientific papers since 1981, with particular strength in chemistry and materials science.
“China is out on its own, far ahead of the pack,” said James Wilsdon, science policy director at the Royal Society in London. “If anything, China’s recent research performance has exceeded even the high expectations of four or five years ago, while India has not moved as fast as expected and may have missed an opportunity.”
Although its quality remains mixed, Chinese research has also become more collaborative, with almost 9 per cent of papers originating in China having at least one US-based co-author.
Brazil has also been building up a formidable research effort, particularly in agricultural and life sciences. In 1981 its output of scientific papers was one-seventh that of India; by 2008 it had almost caught up with India.
At the opposite extreme is Russia, which produced fewer research papers than Brazil or India in 2008.
Just 20 years ago, on the eve of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, Russia was a scientific superpower, carrying out more research than China, India and Brazil combined. Since then it has been left behind.
The Thomson Reuters figures show not only the “awe-inspiring” expansion of Chinese science but also a very powerful performance by Brazil, much slower growth in India and relative decline in Russia.
According to James Wilsdon, science policy director at the Royal Society in London, three main factors are driving Chinese research. First is the government’s enormous investment, with funding increases far above the rate of inflation, at all levels of the system from schools to postgraduate research.
Second is the organised flow of knowledge from basic science to commercial applications. Third is the efficient and flexible way in which China is tapping the expertise of its extensive scientific diaspora in north America and Europe, tempting back mid-career scientists with deals that allow them to spend part of the year working in the west and part in China.
Although the statistics measure papers in peer-reviewed journals that pass a threshold of respectability, “the quality [in China] is still rather mixed,” says Jonathan Adams, research evaluation director at Thomson Reuters. But it is improving, he adds: “They have some pretty good incentives to produce higher quality research in future.”
Like China, India has a large diaspora – and many scientifically trained NRIs (non-resident Indians) are returning but they go mainly into business rather research. “In India there is a very poor connection between high-tech companies and the local research base,” says Mr Wilsdon. “Even the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the highest level institutions in the system, find it difficult to recruit top faculty.”
A symptom of this is the poor performance of India in international comparisons of university standards. The 2009 Asian University Rankings, prepared by the higher education consultancy QS, shows the top Indian institution to be IIT Bombay at number 30; 10 universities in China and Hong Kong are higher in the table.
Part of India’s academic problem may be the way red tape ties up its universities, says Ben Sowter, head of the QS intelligence unit. Another issue is that the best institutions are so overwhelmed with applications from would-be students and faculty within India that they do not cultivate the international outlook essential for world-class universities. This looks set to change as India’s human resource minister has stepped up efforts to build links with US and UK institutions.
In contrast to China, India and Russia, whose research strengths tend to be in the physical sciences, chemistry and engineering, Brazil stands out in health, life sciences, agriculture and environmental research. It is a world leader in using biofuels in auto and aero engines.
Russia produced fewer research papers than Brazil or India in 2008.
“The issue is the huge reduction in funding for research and development in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says Mr Adams. “Although there has been an exodus of many of the rising stars of Russian research, there is still a great pool of talent there. It is not in the interests of the rest of the world for the exodus to continue, and we need more co-funding arrangements to help Russian research get back up to speed.”
Get alerts on Technology sector when a new story is published