Nature (Reino Unido)

Five countries to watch

Publicado em 20 junho 2013


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.