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East & Southeast Asia

Nature volume 515, pages S73S75 (13 November 2014) | Download Citation

China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea vividly demonstrate how significant investment in science can help to fuel national economic growth. Article count (AC): 15,638 Fractional count (FC): 11,449 Weighted fractional count (WFC): 10,811

Nations across East and Southeast Asia have enjoyed success from implementing policies that increase research and development (R&D) budgets and stimulate scientific endeavours, says Tateo Arimoto, the director of Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Program at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “A remarkable increase in scientific output in recent years reflects these efforts,” he says. The region might be third overall by weighted fractional count (WFC), which gives a measure of the relative contribution to each paper; but three of its countries — China, Japan and South Korea — are in the top ten, led by China with a WFC of 5,206.

China and Japan, the world's second and third largest research spenders, are expected to jointly invest nearly 28% of the total US$1.6 trillion (valued in purchasing power parity) for R&D around the world in 2014, according to US thinktank the Battelle Institute. South Korea is expected to come fifth, with a US$63 billion research and development expenditure.

These countries are traditionally strong in physical science and chemistry — of China's total WFC of 5,206, for example, a WFC of 4,696 (or 90%) is from chemical and physical sciences. The Asian powers are spending heavily to maintain this lead, particularly in target areas such as nanoscale research. But, Buhm Soon Park, head of the Graduate School and of science and technology policy at Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST), questions whether a narrow focus is the best way forward. He says this approach will “raise the real question of how far China and Korea can go with such intensive funding”.

Soon Park's worry is shared by Fengchao Liu, a professor of science policy at Dalian University of Technology (DUT) in China, who adds that the Asian countries lag behind the United States and much of Europe in terms of generating novel research.

China, the big spender

There's no doubt that China has the greatest growth rate, both in terms of R&D investment and scientific outputs, of the region's countries. According to UNESCO, China's research spending passed 1 trillion yuan (US$163 billion) in 2012, or 1.98% of its GDP, surpassing the European Union's 1.96%. A decade previously, the country was investing only 1% of GDP.

From 2012 to 2013, China's WFC increased by 15% — even more impressive when compared to an increase of less than 1%, or even a decrease, for all other top-ten WFC countries.

“It is very clear that chinese scientists are making tremendous breakthroughs.”

A recurring criticism is that this rise in quantity has not been matched with improved quality, but that might be changing. China also published more in Nature and Science in 2013 than in 2012, rising from a position of eight to five overall on this measure. And, says Zheng Liang of the China Institute for S&T Policy at Beijing's Tsinghua University, there's more to come. “It is very clear that Chinese scientists are making tremendous breakthroughs in areas like physical sciences,” he says. “And China's capacity in technological development and engineering projects has dramatically grown.”

Box 1: Singapore: Punching above its weight

Although Singapore is the smallest nation in Southeast Asia, in some respects it outperforms other countries in the region and further afield. For example, the Global Competitiveness Report 2014–2015 released by the World Economic Forum in early September 2014 endowed the silver medal of competitiveness to Singapore, second only to Switzerland. This measure aims to quantify a country's drivers of productivity and prosperity.

A*STAR is one of three main institutions Image: A*STAR

The Nature Index adds another credential to those plaudits, showing that the nation has world-class efficiency. The rate of WFC per 1,000 researchers is 14.2 — comparable to the Uinted States and ahead of most major European nations except Switzerland (see Researcher efficiency). According to Wong Poh-Kam, a professor of innovation policy at National University of Singapore (NUS), the city state's active international collaborations, particularly with China, contribute to its excellence.

There are three main players in Singapore: the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and the NUS. Although chemistry is still the greatest strength for all three, there is a growing focus on government funding for life sciences.

In 2012 a Chinese paper made Science magazine's prestigious top-10 breakthroughs for the first time in the list's 18-year history. The study, by researchers with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) at the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant, measured the last unknown parameter needed to describe how neutrinos collide at near-light speed. Results are expected to help explain why the universe contains so much matter and so little antimatter.

One of Nanyang Technological University's schools Image: NTU

Although China and its leading institutions are showcasing growth, its foundations could be a lot better, says Cong Cao, a leading China science policy expert at the United Kingdom's University of Nottingham, who has repeatedly urged an overhaul of China's science system. “Funding for basic research has been below 5% of total R&D spending for a long time, weakening China's innovation capacity,” Cao says. Comparative figures for the United States and Japan are 19% and 12.5%, respectively. “In addition, funding is unevenly concentrated in some top academicians, resulting in reported misuses and insufficient resources for young scientists to develop.”

Peking University

CAS is the leading institution in the world in terms of overall publications in high-quality journals, with a WFC of 1,209 in the Nature Index and a size and stature to match: the Academy has 50,000 scientists at more than 100 research institutes. But China's leading single institution is Peking University (PKU). Like the country in general, PKU is strong in chemistry (see 'Institutional subject spread'), which chemist Song Gao, vice-president of the university, attributes partly to its strong collaborations with other institutions, such as the CAS and the University of California.

However, when it comes to publishing in Science and Nature, PKU is on a par with CAS — but Gao feels that its scientists could do better (see 'Nature and Science split'). Gao says the university concentrates too much on sluggish research fields, and suffers from a paucity of long-term systematic studies and inadequate funding. Targeting the crossover area of chemical biology could help to boost higher-profile results, he says.

Yi Rao, former dean of the Peking University College of Life Science, agrees that PKU's life science is weak. Other universities have much bigger budgets and a longer track record in life science, he says. However, PKU has recently hired at least 30 new junior faculty members to boost research in this area. “Once our newly recruited faculty members grow up, things will change,” Rao predicts.

Japan, pulling out of stagnation

Home to the top two universities in the region, the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan also enjoys a higher ratio of publications in top journals Nature and Science than other countries in the region — although at 1.9% this is still below the global average of 3.1%. Japan is also much stronger in life sciences than China and South Korea. Since 2000, 14 Japanese scientists have been awarded Nobel Prizes. The most recent Japanese-born laureates, who jointly collected the 2014 prize in physics, are Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura (now a US citizen) for their invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes that enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.

KAIST has strong international links Image: KAIST

Greater funding for basic science also distinguishes Japan from China and South Korea, says KAIST's Soon Park. He says that science in these latter two countries is often perceived in “utilitarian terms” — that is, as a necessary step in the production of technology.

After years of stagnation, Japan's R&D expenditure started to grow again in 2012, rising 1.6% over the previous year to 17.4 trillion yen (US$165 billion). In 2013, the Council for Science and Technology Policy, chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, called for a dramatic increase in the numbers of female and foreign researchers at Japanese research institutes from 3.9% to 20% by 2020. It also called for total government R&D investment to be secured at 1% of GDP.

This national ambition is expected to benefit top universities like the University of Tokyo, which is the region's biggest producer of papers in Science and Nature (making up 3.3% of its overall output in the index). One Nature paper, on which four out of five authors were from the University of Tokyo, considered the quantum teleportation of information or qubits, which scored well in the online and social media-focused altmetrics system (see 'The University of Tokyo's online visibility').

The University of Tokyo is stronger in life science than many other institutions in the region, with 27% of its papers in this field. In the index, the university's recent highlights include a paper in Nature about a revolutionary method to probe molecular structure using 'crystalline sponges', and one in the Journal of Clinical Investigation presenting evidence that RNA splicing is involved in certain types of cancer that affect blood cell production. Such successes are proving alluring. “Promising young researchers have been moving from physics and chemistry to medical and biological sciences,” says Arimoto.

But, says Masatoshi Tagawa, a molecular biologist at Japan's Chiba University, the University of Tokyo, and Japan in general, risks losing its edge unless it collaborates more. In the index, Japan has one of the lowest rates of collaboration in the region (see 'Collaborative potential'). Liu of DUT agrees: “Japanese industries have rapidly expanded their collaborations with worldwide academics, but their universities are relatively conservative in both international collaborations and welcoming foreign researchers.”

Importance of impact

Although South Korea is perhaps best known for the commercial products pumped out by Samsung or Hyundai (both of which appear in the index), its basic research output is also strong. The country has 1,953 papers in the Nature Index in 2013, with a WFC of 1,151 placing it tenth worldwide.

Across most research fields, Seoul National University (SNU) and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have the country's leading WFCs, with Samsung Electronics achieving the third highest output in physical sciences. Both South Korean institutions have seen a decrease in their output of high quality science since 2012, dropping in WFC terms by 11% for SNU and 18% for KAIST.

As the country's top research university, SNU has a long and prestigious history with a strong tradition of physical sciences research, borne out by the Nature Index showing 42% of its output is in this field. Nevertheless it is growing its capacity in the life sciences, and at 26% has the highest proportional output in South Korea – despite a setback when, in 2006, stem-cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang was discredited for fabricating data on cloned human embryos.

SNU has an AC twice that of KAIST, and a WFC that is 50% higher, but KAIST's researchers have a greater percentage of papers in Nature and Science: 2.2% of all output compared to 1.2% for SNU.

“An experimental spirit is firmly ingrained in kaist, south korea's elite school.”

The two institutions are very different. KAIST was created in 1971 as an elite graduate school focused on research, under the Ministry of Science and Technology instead of the Ministry of Education. Its academics are better paid and have greater autonomy than at other South Korean universities, including the ability to waive tuition fees, exempt KAIST students from military service, hire new faculty members and create (or close) new academic programmes. “The experimental spirit is firmly ingrained in the school,” says KAIST's Soon Park.

Sung-Mo Kang, President of KAIST, thinks international links have played a key role in its success. “Out of KAIST's total 877 faculty members recruited between 1971 and 2014, 617 professors received their doctoral degrees in the US,” he says.

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