Undaunted by the scientific dominance of historic global big-hitters, some of the world's less prominent research nations are carving out a niche and making a strong impact.
A large portion of the world's best science is produced by a few players: the United States, China, Japan, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. These countries contribute the most to the 68 top-tier natural science journals included in the Nature Index. But, look beyond these heavyweights, and several countries have improved their research performance more than most. These are the ones to watch in 2016 and beyond.
Our selection of rising stars is based on the rate of increase in a country's contribution to 68 index journals, a metric known as weighted fractional count (WFC). The countries listed experienced some of the highest absolute and percentage increases — in either their overall WFC or in a specific subject area — between 2012 and 2015.
2012 WFC: 176.77 2015 WFC: 237.42
Thanks to generous European Union support and a new competitive funding regime, Poland's contribution to the index leapt 34% between 2012 and 2015. The increase can be largely credited to the 2011 creation of the national competitive funding body for basic science, the National Science Centre, and the reform of its applied science counterpart, the National Centre for Research and Development. “The funds spent on science are now highly competitive. This is a huge change,” says molecular biologist, Maciej Zylicz, president of the Foundation for Polish Science. As a result, the proportion of funding distributed through competitive grants has risen from 13% before the changes to 45%, or nearly €1.8 billion in 2014-15, a trend that is likely to continue as the government moves to have all taxpayer funding of science awarded on the basis of performance. In practice, these reforms have brought particular gains, mainly in the physical sciences, which has long been Poland's strongest area and which made up more than half of the country's contribution to the index in 2015.
In recent years, Polish scientists have also benefited from new facilities for research. Generous EU funding for research and innovation, €14 billion between 2007 and 2013, has led to the creation of 10 new international research centres since 2007, including the Solaris Synchrotron at Kraków's Jagiellonian University, which began operation in 2015. AM
2012 WFC: 298.28 2015 WFC: 370.39
The Russian share of the world's high-quality research increased dramatically between 2012 and 2015. The country's contribution to life sciences in particular grew by more than 60%, the largest percentage rise among the top 10 countries in this field.
Russia's strong results come at a time of continuing upheaval in the country's science community.
These results come at a time of continuing upheaval in the country's science community. Since 2013, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), a 300-year-old network of more than 500 research institutes, has been undergoing a radical, Kremlin-driven overhaul that many believe will result in the closure of a large swathe of its institutes. Already, RAS has ceded control of its research priorities and budgets to a separate government agency. And while RAS remains Russia's top producer of high-quality research, its share of the country's index contribution slipped by 2% between 2012 and 2015. Overall, the contribution of Russian scientists to the index increased by 24% over the same period.
By contrast, initiatives to generate quality research outcomes in the university sector are showing signs of success with contributions from the sector driving the country's rising star status. The most ambitious such initiative is the 5-100 Project, launched in 2013 with the aim of pushing five of Russia's top research universities into the top global rankings by 2020. The project has steered significant additional resources to 21 leading universities. The results are manifest in the index: of the 10 Russian institutions with the highest overall index score, seven are part of the 5-100 programme. Second on the list is St Petersburg's ITMO University, which specializes in IT, optical design and engineering, and saw a leap of 184% in its WFC.
Research in the physical sciences continues to dominate Russian research, but performance in the life sciences is rapidly improving. The RAS led the gain in quality life sciences publications — an outcome most likely abetted by its absorption of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences under the 2013 reforms.
Larger economic forces continue to weigh down Russian science activity. In particular, the research community is increasingly feeling the funding pinch caused by the falling oil price and the ongoing domestic economic malaise, says science policy analyst, Irina Dezhina. “The total expenditure on R&D has decreased by 10% this year and there will probably be an additional decrease in the coming year,” Dezhina says. AM
Russia, Poland and Saudi Arabia experienced some of the highest percentage increases in their contribution to this index, a metric known as WFC between 2012 and 2015. AC is the total number of articles included in the index.
2012 WFC: 52.82 2015 WFC: 98.80
The Saudi government has ambitious plans to build a knowledge-led economy.
Saudi Arabia will remain the world's biggest exporter of oil for many years to come. But, its government has ambitious plans to reduce oil dependence and develop a knowledge-led economy. Signs of its reinvention can already be seen in the kingdom's research — Saudi contribution to high-quality research almost doubled over the past four years. Authors from 40 organizations in the kingdom have had their research published in index journals over four years.
Saudi Arabia's major leaps have been in chemistry and, perhaps surprisingly, in Earth and environmental sciences. The leader in this domain is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which was established in 2009 on the Red Sea coast, and which has made marine research one of its main focuses. An example is a recent paper in Nature detailing the genome of eelgrass, the first marine angiosperm to be fully sequenced. To unravel this organism's genome, Carlos Duarte, a marine scientist at KAUST, engaged in a long-term collaboration with more than 30 international researchers. The findings may help explain how marine ecosystems are adapting to climate change — knowledge that may have ramifications for human efforts to mitigate this looming environmental threat.
Seagrasses are a neglected group of higher plants, but are important because they are the only marine plants that fully colonize the sea.
Another effort to boost international collaboration was a partnership with Stanford University that developed a dexterous humanoid robot to inspect coral reefs that are too deep for human divers to explore. It also has a haptic feedback system and can be used to explore wrecks. TH
2012 WFC life sciences: 97.94 2015 WFC life sciences: 114.48
Denmark's contribution to life science in the index grew 17% between 2012 and 2015. The boost is helped by access to one of the world's leading health data sets —much of it stored and distributed by the State Serum Institute — good government support, and strong engagement by Danish pharmaceutical companies, including Novo Nordisk, Lundbeck and Leo Pharma.
“The Danish community understands that research matters. Government and business are aware that good science is competitive and needs funding and good leadership,” says Ulla Wewer, dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen.
OECD data reveals government funding for R&D has steadily increased as a proportion of GDP for more than a decade and it is now one of the highest in Europe at just over 3% (for a total of more than US$7 billion). Life sciences research has benefitted strongly from this, as well as from generous support from private foundations established by the country's home-grown pharmaceutical giants.
The University of Copenhagen leads the improvement in the index showing a nearly 20% increase in contributions to high-quality life science research from 2012 to 2015. The university is already Denmark's leading life sciences performer and a strong international player. “We follow Pasteur's motto: find the best people, give them the best that you have,” says Wewer. This has seen the establishment of three centres of excellence on campus, supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation: the Center for Protein Research, the Center for Metabolic Research and DanStem, a stem-cell focused institute.
One of the institution's recent high-profile papers was the 2015 publication in Cell describing research led by immunologist Shohreh Issazadeh-Navikas. It identified a lack of interferon-β as a cause of Lewy Body and Parkinson's disease-like dementia in mice, a finding that indicates hopeful avenues for developing treatments and preventative measures. AM
While Denmark is a rising star in life sciences, in 2015 the country’s WFC in chemistry and physical sciences made up a significant portion of its index contribution.
2012 WFC physical sciences: 23.70 2015 WFC physical sciences: 39.31
More than 80 South African institutions published research in journals included in the index, including the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu-Natal over four years. The country's overall output in the index grew by more than 40% between 2012 and 2015, an increase driven by a near two-thirds rise in physical sciences research.
This performance reflects the country's selective advantage in astronomy — it is home to the southern hemisphere's largest optical telescope and a significant proportion of the world's largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, which is under construction.
Stephen Fine, an astrophysicist at the University of Western Cape, told Nature Index that increased investment in astronomy, and specifically funding related to SKA Africa, is the main driver of any increase in the number of publications in physical sciences in recent years. Fine's article on counting quasar-radio sources appeared in the index last year.
South Africa spent 0.73% of its GDP on research in 2013/14, the latest year that was available, a sharp drop from before the global financial crisis when private sector R&D spending pushed total expenditure to 0.89% in 2008.
A major force for R&D in South Africa is the government-backed Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), one of the premier research organizations for science on the continent. In 2013, researchers from the council, along with colleagues from the University of KwaZulu–Natal, developed the world's first laser whose output beam shape can be digitally controlled. The technology, published in Nature Communications, used a rewritable holographic mirror to replace the standard laser cavity mirror and has potential use in manufacturing and communications. TH
2012 WFC chemistry: 350.39 2015 WFC chemistry: 472.48
India's science community has long had a passion for chemistry and the love shows no signs of abating. Between 2012 and 2015, the country's contribution to publications in the field grew by 35%. Chemistry made up more than half of India's scientific contributions to the index in 2015.
The recent surge in activity can be traced back to changes made in 2008 when a new overarching funding body, the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), was established under the auspices of the Department of Science and Technology. Although total funding for the field has not significantly increased, the advent of SERB has brought much needed coordination and accountability, says leading theoretical chemist, Debashis Mukherjee. Much of the funding is now distributed through a competitive grant system. “The quantum of funding has not increased all that much but it is being spent more meaningfully”, says Mukherjee.
This has coincided with a growth in the number of chemists, as well as the increasing contributions in chemistry by scientists from other fields. AM
India’s chemistry output grew significantly in four years, and was the main contributor to its 2015 WFC. Last year, researchers had 576 chemistry papers included in the index.
2012 WFC physical sciences: 49.65 2015 WFC physical sciences: 68.05
Last year, thousands of scientists, technicians and students took to the streets to protest the Chilean government's poor research investment. According to the World Bank, the most recent data available (2012) show that Chile spent less than 0.5% of its GDP on R&D — significantly less than the 1.15% by Brazil and Argentina's 0.58%. About 80% of scientific research in Chile is publicly funded.
Despite limited investment, Chile's contribution to physical sciences research in the index grew by almost 40% between 2012 and 2015. Thanks to the clear skies of the Atacama Desert, the country hosts some of the world's biggest telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. Chile is growing in areas besides astronomy. Researchers discovered a new dinosaur, a raptor-like vegetarian relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, that lived during the Late Jurassic period. 'Chilesaurus', became one of the most sensational palaeontology stories of 2015 with the findings published in Nature.
“We experience the frustration of producing top-notch work, yet being unable to obtain the funding we need to research and protect our fossil heritage,” says a researcher at the University of Chile, Alex Vargas, one of the team that documented Chilesaurus. “The University of Chile has been our main support. It recognized our excellence.” This recognition, Vargas says, came through direct grants and by help with application for larger grants from other funding sources.
Chile's National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT), a funding agency, is part of the Ministry of Education and acts in lieu of a science ministry. In the past, the commission has been responsible for more than 50% of publicly funded science research in Chile; in 2016, it had a budget of US$442 million. Mario Hamuy, an astronomer at the University of Chile and chairman of CONICYT, says public investment in scientific research overall has more than doubled since 2007, and that the budget for fundamental research has tripled. Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, also gave Hamuy the job of creating a science and technology ministry that would define and implement policies. TH
A strong focus on astronomy helped boost Chile’s physical sciences WFC between 2012 and 2015.
2012 WFC chemistry: 227.80 2015 WFC chemistry: 296.04
Singapore's research performance has improved markedly in life sciences and chemistry. The city-state, with a population of only 5.5 million, also more than doubled its contribution to Earth and environmental science journals between 2012 and 2015, albeit off a low base.
With English as the primary language taught in schools, Singaporeans have an advantage in international collaborations. The country also has a steady pipeline of scientists-in-training, about 8,000 doctorate researchers in 2015.
It also benefits from long-term planning and generous science funding, which is done in five-year tranches. In January 2016, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a new Research, Innovation and Enterprise plan that sets aside US$13.8 billion for research investment to 2020. That's an 18% increase over the previous one, giving Singapore the world's highest per capita investment in science and technology. The 2016 plan has four pillars: advanced manufacturing and engineering; health and biomedical sciences; urban solutions and sustainability; and services and digital economy.
Singapore has a strong focus on water research, which is driven by water scarcity on its islands. Scientists, led by teams at Nanyang Technology University and the National University of Singapore, have spent decades working with Singapore's Public Utilities Board developing ways to reclaim wastewater using membrane technologies and ultraviolet disinfection techniques. Such systems, known in Singapore collectively as NEWater, now meet about 30% of its water needs.
The organization leading Singapore's public R&D efforts is A*STAR — the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. A*STAR oversees 18 institutes, consortia and centres in disciplines from biomedical engineering to genetics to microelectronics. Biomedical research has been encouraged at organizations such as the Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN). Its researchers coauthored a paper published in Nature Communications last year describing the regulation of gene expression among neutrophils, a form of immune cell. A*STAR's biomedical research portfolio has been diversified to include research in medical technology, food and nutrition and consumer care. TH
2012 WFC Physical sciences: 8.58 2015 WFC Physical sciences: 17.06
Known for its resorts and Buddhist temples, Thailand is also a regional centre of R&D and high-tech manufacturing. It's the world's second-largest exporter of hard disk drives and a major centre for car production.
Thailand's contribution to basic science is also growing, with its researchers doubling their output in physical sciences journals in the index between 2012 and 2015. A major player is the state-backed National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA). Established in 1991, it supports centres of excellence in genetic engineering, biotechnology, electronics and nanotechnology.
Thai scientists such as a chemist at Chulalongkorn University, Patchanita Thamyongkit, have been raising the profile of home-grown research. Her work on the chemistry behind solar cells that use organic compounds, known as porphyrins, helped earn her the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics prize in 2013; she also scooped a L'Oreal-UNESCO accolade in 2014 for women in science. “Thailand is ambitious about upgrading to world-class level,” says Thamyongkit.
However, the country suffers from a paucity of researchers and funding. It had only 13 R&D personnel per 10,000 people in 2014, according to the National Science Technology and Innovation Policy Office (STI). Only about 0.5% of Thailand's GDP is devoted to research. The government wants to increase that to 1% next year, but is relying on the private sector to contribute more than two-thirds, about US$2.5 billion.
“Thailand is focused on cultivating a new generation of young scientists by promoting a number of fields in order to support innovation in strategic sectors targeted by the government,” says Kittipong Promwong, secretary general of STI. Fields will include biotechnology, biomedical devices, robotics and the Internet of Things.” TH
Thailand’s sharp rise in its physical sciences WFC over four years made it a rising star. Last year, researchers had 107 physical sciences papers included in the index.
2012 WFC E&E: 4.13 2015 WFC E&E: 6.80
To Earth and environmental scientists, Turkey has particular appeal. “Turkey has everything in terms of geological structures,” says geologist, Bora Uzel, whose work analysing ancient movements in the Anatolian landscape has helped increase the country's contribution to Earth and environmental journals in the index.
The country's increase in this field has been off a very low base, making prediction for future growth difficult, but Uzel says that with strong international interest and such rich material, it's an exciting time for the field.
One of the most attractive geological elements in Turkey is the North Anatolian fault zone. According to Uzel, this active fault running along the boundary between the Eurasian and the Anatolian Plates is one of the most studied faults on earth, garnering as much interest as the San Andreas fault in California.
Broader government efforts have helped contribute to the recent increase in work published in leading Earth and environment journals. Since the 2000s, the government has encouraged scientists to study abroad — in the US and Europe predominantly — a policy that has brought international exposure and collaboration networks. More recently, increased regard for high-quality publications in awarding funding has given impetus for Turkish scientists to publish in journals included in the index.
“Here there are still unsolved geological questions so Turkey is one of the hottest topics in world geoscience research. Every high-level Earth scientist wants to study here.” AMboxed-text
About this article
Cite this article
All countries, great and small. Nature 535, S56–S61 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/535S56a
This article is cited by
Quality & Quantity (2023)