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World-class research on the rise in Brazil, Asia – Report

Emerging economies such as the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and South Korea have been catching up with the West and Japan in research and development spending for some years, and their research ‘portfolios’ are showing significant areas of world-class excellence, according to a new report by Thomson Reuters.

The report, Building Bricks: Exploring the global research and innovation impact of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Korea, notes that there is still some way to go before the research bases of these countries match the “highly diversified knowledge economies” of Japan and the West.

Nonetheless, write the authors Jonathan Adams, David Pendlebury and Bob Stembridge, “there is clear evidence of a growing wedge of excellent research”.

In some areas this could even lead to “disruptive changes” in traditional R&D strengths of the Group of Seven (G7) most industrialised nations, which include top research nations such as the United States, Japan, Britain, France and Germany.

Research strengths

The just-released report found that leading research areas for the Asian countries of India, China and South Korea are physics, chemistry, engineering and physical sciences. But for Brazil, the life and environmental sciences “lead all the way”.

As a percentage of world research output – measured by publication in internationally recognised peer-reviewed journals – Brazil accounts for an almost 9% share of world agricultural sciences publications and 6.6% of plant and animal sciences publications.

Pharmacology, microbiology, and environment and ecology follow with 3%-4% of world output for the five years 2007-11.

“The signal from Brazil suggests there may be more disruptive changes to come for traditional G7 strengths in pharmaceuticals,” the report says. “Every one of the 10 fields in which it has a relatively high share of global outputs is in the life sciences.”

Even in physics, mathematics and engineering, where the number of research publications in peer-reviewed journals is much lower, Brazilian research has an average impact (that is, citations) above the world average.

India comes closest to Brazil in its portfolio of research strengths, with three life sciences fields in its top five research areas by publications. India has important strengths in chemistry, pharmacology and agricultural sciences research, with each of these fields accounting for just over 6% of world research output, according to the report.

Meanwhile Brazil, China and India also have strengths in agriculture, which will be important for global development, the report says.

By contrast South Korea’s strengths are in materials science – described as “a niche area of exceptional strength and depth” – computer science and engineering.

South Korean research papers where the impact is above the world average include space science, materials science, geosciences, psychiatry and psychology as well as physics, chemistry and mathematics. And patent filings are in some of the world’s high technology areas.

China, which now has a huge volume of research publications, overtaking all the other countries in the report, has soared ahead on materials science – where it accounted for a staggering 24.5% of world research output in 2011 – chemistry (20%) and physics (18%), indicating that it is “really very focused on these technology oriented fields”.

This is similar to Russia, whose top research output is also in the physical sciences.

While the report notes that China could “benefit its own population further by investing in its research competency in plant and animal sciences”, China's patent application pattern is more balanced across science sectors.

Brazil and South Korea have a good spread across their top 10 research fields in terms of publications, while India has an even spread across sectors in its research.

Diversity in research strength “may be important in allowing these countries to move in and out of different research focus areas,” the report notes, adding that for Brazil, it “might be argued that the absence of any physical science technologies in its main areas of effort could become a limiting factor on economic development”.

Impressive investment, performance

China is a major success story and has “steadily ramped up” R&D investment, with a 2.5-fold relative increase in government expenditure on R&D between 2007 and 2011, during a time when its economy was growing at 9%-10%.

China’s R&D spending, at around 1.8% of gross domestic product (GDP), is similar to the UK's 1.7% although far from the 2.7% of GDP spending of the US.

But more impressive is the finding that for all the 'Brick' countries, the trend is for an increasing share of papers in the world’s top 1% most cited for that year.

By 2010, China was producing over 1,000 such highly cited papers per year, similar to the UK’s annual average, although the UK’s research output in total is much smaller.

South Korea is producing about the same relative output of high impact papers compared to China. Brazil, Russia and India are somewhat further behind.

While China has rushed ahead in volume of publications, the report describes India as a “sleeping giant”, but adds it has now begun to stir “and is probably on a path that will see it matching leading EU countries at around 100,000 papers per year by 2020.”

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