Rise of the Asian giants in research and development

The growing role of knowledge-intensive innovation and production in the economy and the importance placed on research in university rankings were powering the worldwide growth of scientific output, a conference in Melbourne heard on Tuesday.

Professor Simon Marginson said that more and more nations were developing science and innovation systems, with 48 countries publishing more than 1,000 journal papers in science in 2009, compared to 38 nations in 1995 – a 26% increase.

A professor in the centre for the study of higher education at the University of Melbourne, Marginson was in his home city addressing the 10th annual Higher Education Summit, which is being attended by most of the country’s vice-chancellors, and others from overseas.

The rise of Asia

The fastest growth in scientific output was in Asia, especially North East Asia and Singapore, with the growth of research in China being exceptionally rapid, Marginson said. China was making a sustained effort to lift itself “from global poverty to world leadership in the knowledge economy”.

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of science papers produced each year rose at an annual rate of 17% – “and when the largest nation in the world grows its research at rates that have never been seen anywhere before, this is a game changer”.

Research in South Korea had also grown very rapidly, while Singapore and Taiwan were not far behind. These systems were rigorous in setting global research as the performance standard for their leading universities.

Illustrating his talk with a series of more than 40 high-quality, informative graphics, Marginson showed how, in East Asian research, quantity was stronger than research quality, as measured by citation impact.

As part of his own research, he had compiled a list of all universities worldwide with more than 5,000 papers in the Leiden ranking, and also more than 10% of those papers in the top 10% of their field on the basis of citations – that is, universities strong in both quantity and quality.

“There were 64 US universities on the list, six from Australia, and only 12 from the whole of North East, South East and South Asia. But as cite rates improve there will be many more Asian universities on that list in future. And Asia already has research powerhouses.

“For example, the National University of Singapore is stronger than all of Australia’s universities in both research paper quantity and citation impact – in quantity and quality.

“There are also middle-sized Asian universities of science and technology with higher citation rates than the Australian National University, such as Hong Kong UST, Postech in Korea and Nankai in China.”

Since 2005, the number of top 500 universities in mainland China listed in the Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking system had jumped from eight to 23 – in a mere six years, Marginson said.

China published 7.5% of the world's science papers in 2006-08 although it had only 3.6% of the top 1% most cited papers. But discipline performance was uneven: the nation was very strong in research in engineering, chemistry, materials, computing and mathematics.

In the past decade there had been a phenomenal improvement in highly cited papers in those disciplines, in both China and the Asia-Eight, which includes Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. By contrast, China is still relatively weak in research in the life sciences and medicine.

Global student market

Turning to the global student market, Marginson said there were two significant indicators: total global market share of international students, and the intensity of international research student activity.

The European Union’s Institute for Strategic Studies released a report last month showing that by 2030, “only 18 years away”, the global middle class would grow to 4.9 billion – at which point more than half the world’s population would be middle-class.

He noted that most of the growth would be in China and India, where new middle-class families would want higher education for their children. The question was not whether there would be demand, but which systems and institutions would satisfy that demand.

“International education is not just a global competition for revenues. It is primarily a competition for talent. [Australia is] losing in the competition for top end talent.

“Both the Bradley and Lomax-Smith reports urged the broadening of the international education programme, shifting part of the focus from revenue raising to international doctoral students and research collaboration, more Australian students going abroad, and deeper intercultural experiences in teaching and learning for all students,” Marginson said.

“We are positioned primarily as an exporter of high volume, medium-level international education in a congenial setting, with areas of research strength and a knack for business models. We need to position ourselves as a powerhouse of the knowledge economy through research and advanced training.

“We make best use of our position in the global environment by aiming higher, by keeping our eyes open and our wits about us, by continuing to be organisational innovators, by learning all we can about our partners and competitors, and by working as hard as they do.”