A decade of 20%-per-year increases in government funding, along with robust industrial development, have propelled the world’s most populous country into the upper echelons of science.
The growth in China’s contribution to the Nature Publishing Index since 2011 is a clear indication of the increase in quality scientific output. There are 43% more Chinese institutions in the NPI than in 2012 and the country now represents 30% of all the NPI score from the Asia-Pacific region.
In 2008, articles featuring China-based authors accounted for 3.6% of the whole NPI; in 2012 it was 8.5%. The Chinese share of corrected count (CC) has similarly risen, from 1.5% in 2008 to 4.2% in 2012. Looking only at articles published in the flagship journal Nature, the Chinese share of the CC has risen from 1.5% to 2.5%.
These gains can largely be attributed to increased funding. The last decade has seen Chinese spending on research and development (R&D) grow by around 20% per year putting the country in second place — behind only the US — in total science expenditures. And the Chinese government plans to increase R&D spending from its 2012 level of 1.75% of GDP to at least 2.5% by 2020.
Healthcare policies allocating billions of dollars to drug development are encouraging China’s life sciences institutions to become bigger global players. Moreover, private funds are also pouring in. US pharmaceutical giant Merck has announced plans to spend US$1.5 billion over the next five years on R&D in Beijing. Merck will be joining other companies that have made similar investments, including Eli Lilly, GSK and Pfizer. Domestic companies are joining forces with foreign organizations for drug discovery and clinical development.
But, China has gaps in its support. Investment in basic science is only 4.6% of R&D spend (compared to the 15–25% of R&D funds that most developed countries devote to basic science). And in the last ten years, the percentage spend on public institutions has fallen by more than a third, indicating greater reliance on private sector funding.
Regulatory constraints are also impeding research. Limits on payments to graduate students and postdocs mean that in most cases, less than 15% of a project’s funding can be spent on salaries. As a result, many good scientists are lost to more lucrative jobs abroad.
China has a historical strength in engineering and is traditionally strongest in the physical sciences. Nevertheless, the 2012 NPI shows its growing prowess in life sciences. China was the top Asia-Pacific nation in five Nature journals in 2012: Nature Biotechnology, Nature Cell Biology, Nature Genetics, Nature Structural & Molecular Biology and Nature Methods.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is clearly the dominant research institution and ranks 12th globally, up from 22nd in 2011. CAS is number one in China in each of the four subject areas. The number two spots in the four areas are spread among different institutions: Tsinghua University (chemistry), BGI (life sciences), University of Science and Technology of China (physics) and Zhejiang University (Earth and environmental sciences).
While China improves, Hong Kong is slipping; two of its institutions fell in the ranking: the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) dropped from 180th globally in 2011 to 282nd in 2012, and the University of Hong Kong (HKU) slid from 198th in 2011 to 260th in 2012. Hong Kong’s leaders are not giving science the same priority as in mainland China, allocating just 0.7% of GDP to R&D.
While austerity measures have cramped the economy overall, successive coalition governments have maintained spending on research and science budgets have stayed largely intact.
The once roaring Celtic tiger is dead and gone. More than a decade of unprecedented growth and prosperity came to an abrupt end in 2008, leaving Ireland to struggle with massive sovereign debt, rising unemployment, and the prospect of a generation of young people leaving the small island nation.
An English-speaking workforce, along with business-friendly corporate tax rates, saw Ireland become one the world’s hot spots for foreign investment in the mid-1990s, igniting the economy after decades of sluggish growth and mass emigration.
Investment in scientific research has been prioritized by successive coalition governments as one of the best ways to create jobs and strengthen national competiveness. Research spending has been largely spared the savage cuts inflicted on other sectors as the government meets the austere conditions of its €67.5 billion European Union rescue package.
This science-friendly regime has borne fruit, as seen by Ireland’s impressive rise up the NPI — from 30th in 2008 to 20th in 2012. And if you count the number of published pieces in Nature as a proportion of the number of full-time researchers, Ireland ranks 8th in the world. By that same measure for Nature Immunology, Ireland ranks first.
Unsurprisingly, Ireland’s biggest and best institutions — University College Dublin (UCD) and University of Dublin (better known as Trinity College) — have by far the highest corrected counts, at 5.2 and 2.7, respectively. A notable study on gut microbiota in elderly people by UCD and University College Cork, amongst other Irish and Welsh contributions, was published in Nature. The National University of Ireland, Maynooth, (NUIM) claims third spot with a CC of 1.4, on the strength of being the sole contributor to papers on interleukin-17 signalling in Nature Communications, and on the expression of interferon in Nature Immunology. Despite these highlights, Irish universities do not dine at the top table of world-class science institutions. Trinity ranks 145th and UCD is 269th while NUIM dwells at 423rd.
Irish universities have had to adapt to austerity measures. In 2010, UCD laid off about 8% of its 3,378 staff, including 82 academic posts, while Trinity College had to dip into its endowment to maintain research staff levels.
This year, the Irish government announced new investment in innovative research. The 6-year, €300-million (US$392-million) plan will create seven hubs to connect private companies with academic researchers. The goal is to promote Ireland’s strategic research strengths, such as renewable energy, photonics and nanotechnology, functional foods and drug synthesis.
If Ireland is to build a knowledge-based economy, one that rides the boom and bust of inflated property markets and easy international finance, it’s making the right moves.
Wide-ranging efforts in the largest Latin American nation spread from stem cell research to high-energy physics.
With major efforts to increase international collaboration and a “publish or perish” culture, the largest Latin American country is moving up the NPI rankings, but its scientific community still struggles to produce high-impact publications
Brazil’s position in the Nature Publishing Index (NPI) implies an improving status for science in the country. The Latin American nation, in 27th position, has moved up seven places in the global NPI rankings since 2008. Its corrected count has risen by an annual average of 29.3%.
But such growth in absolute numbers masks a research environment in flux. Critics accuse the funding agencies of focusing too much on the quantity of papers rather than on their impact. “Brazilian scientists have incentives to publish, and are under unprecedented pressure to do so,” says biochemist Rogério Meneghini, a scientific director at sciELO, a database of electronic and open-access journals jointly funded by Fapesp (the São Paulo State Science Foundation) and Brazil’s federal government.
Brazil’s national commitment to science funding has risen slightly in the past few years. At the federal level, research funding as a portion of GDP has crept up from 1% to 1.2%. In São Paulo State, which is responsible for about half of the country’s science output, research spending as a share of GDP has risen from 1.5% to 1.66%. After a genomics boom that started in the late 1990s, most large-scale projects (many funded by Fapesp) now focus on bioenergy, biodiversity and predicting the effects of climate change, with particular consideration given to possible implications on Brazil’s booming agribusiness sector.
Basic research in Brazil is largely the remit of public universities, both at federal and state level. The campuses of the University of São Paulo (USP), through their size (about 90,000 students overall, a third of whom are graduate students) and regular state funding, are strong in many fields, particularly biomedical research and quantum physics.
The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), with about 50,000 students, has a similarly high profile. Its scientists have led important clinical trials using adult stem cells to treat heart disease and were the first to obtain human iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) in Brazil. In the corrected count for all Nature journals, UFRJ is Brazil’s top-ranked institution, followed by USP; based on the corrected count for only the journal Nature itself, USP takes the highest position.
Brazil also has publicly-funded research institutes that are not affiliated with universities. Examples include the Brazilian Association for Synchrotron Light Technology, which houses the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory — a ‘Brazilian LHC’ that uses beams of concentrated energy to study materials and the structure of proteins; and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a leader in tropical medicine research since the early twentieth century.
In recent years Brazil has made efforts to forge international partnerships. In the federal arena, the most visible and ambitious programme is Ciência Sem Fronteiras (Science Without Frontiers), established in 2011. Its main goal is to provide around 100,000 scholarships for Brazilian undergraduates and graduate students to spend time at universities abroad. The programme also offers financial incentives for foreign researchers to become visiting professors in Brazil. Fapesp is trying to attract senior foreign scientists to São Paulo State with its São Paulo Excellence Chairs. Researchers are encouraged to submit proposals for a five-year project and successful candidates will spend about three months each year for the duration of the project.
“We have some modest signs that things are improving in terms of international collaboration,” says Meneghini. “But we’re still struggling compared with other countries.” Indeed, he says, while European countries typically collaborate in 50% of their papers, for Brazilian scientists the figure is closer to 25%.
“In that regard, we’re not so different from India or China, or even Japan, which are not nearly as well connected as the European Union countries,” Meneghini argues. “Maybe the language barrier is relevant and of course geography still matters.”
Despite the growth of its basic science portfolio, there is still a lack of collaboration between Brazil’s scientists and its private sector, and “entrepreneur scientists” are rare. A programme announced in April 2013 by the federal government, amounting to around US$15 billion, will try to stimulate technology transfer and innovation in Brazilian companies as an engine for economic growth.
Driven mainly by research on endemic diseases like malaria and its urgent need to develop energy, Kenya’s NPI ascent is impressive.
Kenya’s rapid climb up the Nature Publishing Index since 2008 — the fastest of any country tracked in the NPI — marks the country as one to watch.
Kenya has enjoyed stable economic growth over the past decade. Recent oil and gas discoveries have brightened the outlook further, with projected real GDP growth rates over the next few years of 5–8%.
As the financial hub for East Africa, Kenya attracts investments from international companies and organizations wanting to establish a presence in the region. The capital, Nairobi, is home to many research institutes, largely internationally funded, such as the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). Such institutes dominate research in Kenya, where medical science accounts for much of the NPI achievement.
More than half the articles were produced by, or pertain to, a single initiative — the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust, a research collaboration between the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and the British medical research charity. With links to institutions such as the University of Oxford in the UK, the programme has nurtured a small group of internationally competitive local researchers, focusing on malaria. One of its key achievements is the Malaria Atlas Project, which is the first map of the epidemiology and burden of the disease worldwide. The programme has since been extended to other diseases including HIV-infection and sickle-cell disease.
Kenya’s gross expenditure on science remains small. The most recent comprehensive spending data puts the country’s total R&D investments at 0.48% of its GDP in 2007/08—far from its target of 1% of GDP. Virtually all research funding comes from government or international donors; industrial investments account for barely 2.5% of the total.
The Kenyan government plans to divert more resources from its growing economy to research. Last year, it approved a plan to create a research endowment by investing a lump sum of 2% of GDP — roughly US$660 million. However, the new government that came into power in May 2013 has so far said nothing about whether it will carry out this initiative. The government also wants to encourage more industry-led R&D. It is investing in technology parks around the capital to attract foreign companies. State funding of 1 billion Kenyan shillings (US$10 million) has already been poured into a 5,000-hectare site south of Nairobi. The Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, just outside the capital, and the University of Nairobi are also planning technology parks to nurture links between Kenyan academia and the private sector.
Information and communications technology is likely to feature strongly in Kenya’s future research growth. The country is already home to M-Pesa, a hugely successful mobile-phone-based money transfer service. In 2012, IBM gave this industry a thumbs-up by opening its first African lab in Nairobi.
The government is also building new solar and geothermal energy plants in order to expand the electricity supply (only 16% of Kenyans now have access to electricity). Kenya’s universities are launching engineering courses to provide the skills needed in the renewables sector.
Kenya’s economic and scientific advances are fragile. Although considered politically stable (by African standards), ethnic tensions combined with marked inequality occasionally spark flashpoints. While the government’s commitment to science is well-documented, it has many other concerns including climate change, unrest in the horn of Africa and the global economic downturn.
A marked increase in the demand for energy to fuel a much-needed desalination programme has seen the Saudi government make significant investment in research.
The desert kingdom is using its oil wealth to fund ambitious scientific research efforts, and has risen rapidly up the NPI ranks.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has an ambitious strategy to expand its scientific achievement and its performance in the Nature Publishing Index (NPI) shows that strategy is working. Its corrected count over the past five years has increased by an annual average of 140%, lifting the country up seven places in the NPI since 2008, making it one of the world’s fastest improvers.
Published research covers issues especially pertinent to the country’s future, such as energy and agriculture, and also more abstract fields such as advanced materials, immunology and epidemiology, genetics and chemistry. Such work includes a Nature paper outlining how textured superhydrophobic surfaces can be used to prevent vapour explosions in say, a nuclear power plant. A Nature Materials paper describes a technique that “opens new avenues to control light, heat and mass transport at the nanoscale”. The national scientific organization in charge of leading these endeavours — the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology —has, since its establishment in 1977, supported scientific research on hundreds of projects in various sectors.
The KSA is funded by a continuous stream of oil revenue. But the government is also investing in alternative energy forms, with plans to build 16 nuclear reactors at an estimated cost of US$80 billion. The Kingdom’s energy needs are immense; one of the biggest consumers is its water desalination programme — already the largest in the world — which it must expand to address its acute water shortage. KSA plans to spend US$66 billion on plants and upgrades over the next 10 years.
Saudi Arabia has established 24 research centers in the past three decades, attracting international talent as well as paying for nationals to study abroad. In 2012, some 130,000 Saudi students were studying overseas — half of them in the United States — funded by the King Abdullah Scholarship Program.
The KSA is also attempting to raise the level of education at home. Its most prominent institutions include King Abdulaziz University, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the King Saud University. KAUST opened in 2008 under the presidency of Shih Choon Fong, the former president of the National University of Singapore. In February 2013 KAUST named as his successor Jean-Lou Chameau, formerly in charge at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It is hoped the appointment will also bolster the KSA’s efforts in astronomical research which include a partnership with NASA on moon and asteroid research.
Universities in the KSA are able to offer attractive salary packages for foreign staff and, despite the country’s deep conservatism, there is a significant expatriate community, a legacy of its historical attraction for international oil workers.
A possible drawback to KSA’s progress is the lack of opportunity for women, a cultural tradition that precludes females from pursuing education in many fields such as engineering and life sciences. In 2009, only 1.4% of researchers in the KSA were women, according to UNESCO data.
In addition to its domestic research, the KSA is also forging relationships with foreign institutions, including its US$3.2 million sponsorship of research at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in nanoelectronics and clean energy. Those supporting science in the KSA hope that these investments pay off in the long run.