Asia: The Growing Hub Of Scientific Research

The scientific global village has a new member: Asia.

  • Asia-8’s R&D expenditure is second only to the US, surpassing the EU-27
  • One-third of all scientific researchers worldwide are Asian
  • One-quarter of the world’s publications are from Asia
  • China’s scientific publishing output may overtake the US in 2013

AsianScientist (Apr. 3, 2011) – The Asian research landscape is dynamic and burgeoning, with its researchers making significant contributions in academic publications, research & development, and high-technology manufacturing and exports.

The emerging Asia-8 economies (China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand) are currently leading this change in status quo, driving a shift from the traditional hubs of research in the US and countries in the EU-27.

Asian R&D spending has increased

An important measure of an industry’s growth, Asian R&D expenditure has grown significantly with China’s spending now US$100 billion of the worldwide total of US$1.1 trillion in 2007.

In figures from the 2010 National Science Foundation Key Science and Engineering Indicators, spending by Asia-8 economies have now reached second place behind the US, surpassing those of the EU-27. Overall, R&D growth in US and Europe has plateaued, averaging 5-6 percent annually over the period 1996–2007, whereas R&D growth rates of Asian economies during the same period often exceeded 10 percent, with Chinese spending growing at 20 percent since 1999.

Reflecting an increase in private spending by domestic and foreign firms as well as public R&D spending, Asia-8 member Singapore has nearly doubled its spending between 1996 and 2007 from 1.37 to 2.61 percent of its GDP. This unprecedented growth is part of the island nation’s policy designed to raise its competitiveness through the development of a knowledge-intensive economy.

R&D Expenditure For The US, EU-27 And Asia-8
R&D Expenditure For The US, EU-27 And Asia-8 (Source: NSF SEI 2010)

One out of three researchers are Asian

Other signs of a shift in research can be observed by the distribution of researcher nationalities. Asia now contributes nearly one-third of the 5.8 million researchers worldwide.

The combined number of researchers of South Korea, Taiwan, China, and Singapore rose from 16 percent in 2003, to 31 percent in 2007, driven mostly by China’s rapid growth in R&D. In contrast, the number of US and EU researchers declined from 51 to 49 percent; Japan’s share dropped from 17 to 12 percent.

There has also been a surge in a new generation of researchers from Asia, with 1.5 million students in China alone currently enrolled in postgraduate programs. This number is an increase in 57 percent compared to the previous year, according to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). In total, China has 31 million students in higher education institutions in 2010, an increase of 35 percent compared to 2005, and almost double compared to  2002.

Publication output from Asia is increasing

Another metric – publishing output – indicates that the world’s scientific hub is slowly shifting east. Between 1995 to 2007, the growth rate in science and engineering article output from mature economies of the US (0.7 percent) and EU (1.9 percent) has plateaued, in contrast to the rapidly developing science base of Asia-8 countries (9.0 percent) and China (16.5 percent).

Although the UK and US together still account for 38 percent of publications in 2004-2008, this figure is down from 45 percent in the previous five years. This is contrasted by Asia-8, China and Japan, which now account for 22 percent of the world’s total academic publication output. Singapore’s output, though small in comparison, has tripled between 1996 and 2008, from 2620 to 8506 papers.

Together, China and Spain have now edged Australia and Switzerland out of the top ten publishers for the last five years.

S&E Articles
Science & Engineering Articles For The US, EU-27 And Asia-8 (Source: NSF SEI 2010)

The types of publications also vary by geography – more than half of US articles report on research in the medical and life sciences sectors; in contrast, more than half of the research published by Asian scientists and engineers are in the fields of natural sciences and engineering. The different directions taken reflect economic interests, with Asian countries more focused on homegrown electronic and manufacturing industries.

A new report from the UK’s Royal Society, Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global scientific collaboration in the 21st century predicts that the scientific output of China is also on course to overtake the US. After displacing the UK as the world’s second leading producer of research, it predicts that China will do so as early as 2013, revised down from the original 2020 estimates.

In 1996, the first year of the analysis, the US published 292,513 papers – 10 times China’s 25,474. By 2008, the US total had increased marginally to 316,317 while China’s jumped more than seven-fold to 184,080. These numbers are based on the papers listed by the Scopus service of the publishers Elsevier.

Projected Growth In Citations In Scientific Literature
Projected Growth In Citations In Scientific Literature (Source: Royal Society).

Patents and citations reflect a need for quality increases in Asia

Patent awards – indicating useful inventions and meant to protect the property rights of investors – are currently dominated by inventors in the US, EU-27, and Japan. US patenting by Asian inventors is on the rise, driven by activity in Taiwan and South Korea, but Chinese and Indian patenting remains modest.

Despite surges in total R&D expenditure and publication output, a growing number of research publications in Asia does not necessarily mean a rise in quality. According to the Royal Society report, a key indicator of publication quality – the citation ranking – showed that China’s citation ranking did not mirror the rapidity of growth seen in the nation’s investment or publication output.  Representing only 3.7 percent of worldwide citations, China’s numbers suggest that it will take time for emerging nations to challenge the quality demanded by the international scientific community.

Global Citations In Scientific Journals
Global Citations In Scientific Journals (Source: Royal Society).

Language ability may also have something to do with the quality of publications. With English being the lingua franca of scientific research and international commerce, the next step will be to improve Asia’s spoken and written English standards.

A comprehensive index ranking the proficiency of non-native English speakers from 2007 to 2009 showed that Asia’s performance was significantly lower than expected. English proficiency levels ranged from high in Malaysia to low in China, and very low in Vietnam and Indonesia. Singapore was not included in this study as English is the native language there. Poorly-written publications compared to peers from US and EU countries may lead to lower citations and the reduced impact, signs of which can be seen from citation rankings.

Science, the global village

Science is also becoming bigger and more global. The proportion of published papers that were based on international collaborations now constitute 35 percent of the total papers, up from 25 percent fifteen years ago. There was also a correlation between the number of citations an article received and the number of countries involved (up to a tipping point of ten countries), which suggests the benefit of international collaborations in increasing a publication’s impact.

With the Gates Foundation tackling tuberculosis, polio and malnutrition in India, to Tony Blair’s involvement with the Climate Group to address climate change issues together with five Chinese cities, the growing role of international scientific collaboration may also increase the ability of scientists to solve pressing global challenges of our time.

These issues, such as energy security, climate change and biodiversity loss are based on complicated international dynamics that are often overlooked by policies and programs put in place to address them. Global collaborations may result in social, economic and political solutions to these problems.

The shifting face of science reflects the strides made by the Asia-8 and other emerging nations in recognizing research & development as a valuable industry.  These changes have not gone unnoticed by foreign firms and institutions who have established headquarters and brand-new universities in Asia.

Indeed, the scientific global village has a new member: Asia.


Source: National Science Foundation, Royal Society UK.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Juliana is the founder and CEO of Wildtype Media Group, Asia's leading STEM-focused media company, spanning digital, print, custom publishing and events. Brands under Wildtype Group include Asian Scientist Magazine and Supercomputing Asia, award-winning titles available in print and online. Juliana regularly moderates panel discussions and gives talks on science communication.

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