CHINA: Emerging world leader in science

China is emerging as the world leader in science. From a mere speck in the atlas of science two decades ago, China today has overtaken Japan, Britain, Germany and France to become second only to the US in the number of scientific research papers produced each year. China also made the third largest investment in research and development last year, after America and Japan.

In terms of number of papers indexed in Scopus, an abstract and citation database for scholarly literature, China was ranked ninth in the world in 1996. But the giant nation has improved its position steadily in the past 12 years to reach second place.

The dramatic rise of China, unparalleled in the history of modern science, can be put in perspective by comparing the numbers of papers published from the top 12 countries in 1996 and 2007:
In the last12 years as the share of the world's scientific papers from the US, UK, Germany, Japan, France and Canada have decreased, China's share has jumped 4.5 times. But of the 12 nations considered, China has the lowest number of citations per paper whereas the leading OECD countries, including non-English-speaking Germany, France and Italy, have done well.

Clearly, China has a long way to go in the race for quality. But, as Chairman Mao used to say, out of quantity would emerge quality and it is likely that papers from China will be cited more often in the future.

China's emergence is accompanied by the rise of a few other Asian countries: India and South Korea are also among the top 12 nations in the number of papers published although their growth has been much slower than in China. During the 11 years when China moved up seven ranks from ninth to second, India moved up three from 13th to 10th, and South Korea moved up eight from 20th to 12th. Their papers are also not well cited. The fall in the number of papers published from Japan is at least in part compensated by the large number of patents filed by Japanese companies and researchers.

That China's 20% annual R&D growth rate from 1995 onwards exceeded all other Asian nations is noteworthy because of China's emergence on the world stage as an economic power. This was more than Singapore's 15% growth rate and Taiwan's and South Korea's 10% and 7% average increases respectively, says a recent National Science Foundation report.

The growth of science in Asia and the investments in research made in Brazil and South Africa are leading to a new equilibrium in global science and technology.

One reason for China's significant expansion in R&D may be its government's declaration of education, science and technology as strategic engines of sustainable economic development. China already is an important player in high-technology markets, attracting investments from the world's major corporations.

An analysis of Chinese research papers, indexed in Web of Science during 1997 to June 2007, shows that China's strength is in the physical sciences and engineering, with 25% of papers in chemistry, followed by physics (17.5%), materials science (11.6%) and engineering (10.5%). In the US, on the other hand, clinical medicine and life sciences are the clear leaders.

China is also making inroads into high-tech research in a big way. In the field of fuel cells, as seen from Web of Science, researchers from China have published 2,017 papers during 2001-07, compared with 1,834 papers from Japan, 979 papers from South Korea and 374 papers from India. The US was the obvious world leader with 3,865 papers. This is an area of great current relevance in view of the rapidly rising oil prices.

In the field of nanoscience and nanotechnology, in the two years 2006 and 2007, China had produced 18,112 papers, compared with 8,476 from Japan, 5,121 from South Korea, 3,446 papers from India and 22,959 papers from the US. Besides, China has strong space and defence science programmes.

In 2002, China accounted for 2.12% of the global research and development expenditures, compared with 0.53% for India, 0.83% for Australia, 1.98% for South Korea, 1.97% for Canada, 3.86% for UK, 6.58% for Germany, 20.41% for Japan and 36.69% for the US.

According to the OECD Main S&T Indicators, China's gross domestic expenditure on R&D last year was more than US$86 billion (in purchasing power parity terms), which was exceeded only by that of the US ($344 billion, ppp) and Japan ($139 billion, ppp).

"Asia's R&D activity may have surpassed the European Union in 2002, and by 2003 was nearly 10% greater," says the NSF report. "According to these data, in 2003 Asia's R&D investment may have been as much as 80% that of the US, largely reflecting Chinese growth. While precise comparisons are technically problematical, there is little doubt about China's rapid advancement into the group of leading R&D nations."

Lawrence Rausch, a senior analyst and project director at NSF, says there are a number of reasons the findings are important to the US: "Improved science and technological capacity in Asian countries create new market opportunities for US business. In addition, it can lead to new opportunities for US researchers and businesses to collaborate overseas."

One area is of concern: scientific manpower. China has only 633 researchers for every million population. That may look a luxury compared with India's 157 for every million, but it is rather inadequate for a country aiming to be the world leader especially given there are 3,222 researchers for every million people in Germany, 4,526 in the US, 5,085 in Japan, 5,171 in Sweden and 7,431 in Finland.