China set for global lead in scientific research

Via Financial Times

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, re-search evaluation director at Thomson Reuters, said China’s “awe-inspiring” growth meant it was now the second-largest producer of scientific knowledge and was on course to overtake the US by 2020 if it continued on its trajectory.

Thomson Reuters , which indexes scientific papers from 10,500 journals, analysed the performance of four emerging markets countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – over the past 30 years.

China far outperformed every other nation, with a 64-fold increase in peerreviewed 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.

“We are seeing more than the growth of a strong domestic research base,” said Mr Adams. “Regional networks of scientific collaboration are developing fast, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.”

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.

Russia, which has previously been seen as a leader in scientific research, produced fewer 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 not only by the world-beating growth of Chinese science but also by India and Brazil.

Huge changes in the world’s scientific landscape are revealed in the analysis of the output of the four Bric countries since 1981.

According to Mr Wilsdon, 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 peerreviewed journals that pass a threshold of respectability, “the quality [in China] is still rather mixed”, said Mr Adams. But it was improving: “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,” said 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.

Part of India’s academic problem might be the way red tape tied up its universities, said Ben Sowter, head of the QS intelligence unit. Another issue was that the best institutions were 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.

Of Russia, Mr Adams said: “The issue is the huge reduction in funding for research and development in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

“Although there has been an exodus of many of the rising stars of 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.”

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