A researcher in protective gear stands in a lab

A chemist works in an industrial laboratory.Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

The University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) in Beijing, China is the fastest-rising institution in chemistry in the Nature Index 2020 Annual Tables.

Its change in adjusted Share from 2015 to 2019 was 130.93, representing a 185.7% increase in 4 years. (When comparing data over time, Share values are adjusted to 2019 levels to account for the small annual variation in the total number of articles in the Nature Index journals. The Nature Index is one indicator of institutional research performance. See Editor’s note below.)

In second position is the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in the city of Hefei, the capital of China’s Anhui province (see Graphic). USTC was also placed second in the fastest-rising institutions overall. In the Nature Index global top 10 for 2020, USTC appears in eighth position. See the 2020 Annual Tables Top 100 institutions for chemistry for 2019.

Source: Nature Index

Here is a selection of institutions from the top 25 of the Nature Index 2020 Annual Tables — rising stars in chemistry.

Sichuan University, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 83.99; % change: 97.2%; Place: 3rd

The Chengdu-based Sichuan University (SCU) is the oldest modern university in southwest China. Founded in 1896, it was bolstered by a merger with the Chengdu University of Science and Technology in 1994 and with the prestigious West China University of Medical Sciences in 2000.

In January 2020, it enrolled 37,000 undergraduate, 28,000 graduate, and 4,200 international students. Among its 4,527 faculty members, it hosts 16 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering, 45 full-time Changjiang scholars honoured by China’s Ministry of Education, and 51 recipients of the Distinguished Young Scientist award from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

SCU has a strong and rapidly growing team of chemistry researchers, distributed throughout its College of Chemistry, School of Chemical Engineering and other research centres. The 15 national key labs and engineering centres hosted by the university focus on areas such as polymer materials, green chemistry, leather chemistry and biopharmaceuticals.

SCU professor of chemistry, Feng Xiaoming, is internationally renowned for coming up with a new way to synthesize Paclitaxel, a chemical compound used for antitumour drugs. In 2018, Feng was a co-recipient of the US$1-million 2018 Future Science Prize in physical sciences, known informally as China’s Nobel Prize.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 66.87; % change: 120.2%; Place: 5th

China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) is fast becoming a leader in chemistry, which is its strongest subject in the Nature Index.

The 123-year-old university counts 3,014 full-time faculty, including 22 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and 24 members of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. It also runs seven government-funded laboratories, including the State Key Laboratory of Metal Matrix Composites and the State Key Laboratory of Ocean Engineering — facilities that receive funding and administrative support from the Chinese government.

In 2019, an international team with members from SJTU created a soft and flexible battery that could be used to power wearable devices. The findings were published in Nature Communications.

Sun Yat-sen University, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 50.07; % change: 61.1%; Place: 9th

Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU) has made significant gains in high-quality chemistry research in the Nature Index since 2015. Spread across five campuses in the Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Shenzhen, SYSU also runs ten affiliated hospitals.

SYSU’s research funding totalled 3.14 billion yuan (US$442 million) in 2019. Its School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering supports 160 faculty members and staff, including 40 full professors and three Chinese Academy of Sciences members.

Last year, SYSU researchers co-authored a paper in Nature Chemistry describing a new catalyst for use in photodynamic therapy for treating cancer that is able to tackle tumours in oxygen-free environments.

Nankai University, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 47.67; % change: 35.3%; Place: 11th

Nankai University (NKU) has for decades been one of China’s most prestigious comprehensive universities. Established in 1919 in Tianjin, a major port city 108 kilometres east of Beijing in northeastern China, it currently has 28,557 students and 2,162 faculty members, including 14 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Three years after opening its doors, Nankai set up one of China’s first chemistry departments. Today, its Tianjin Collaborative Innovation Center of Chemical Science and Engineering — established in 2011 through a partnership with the nearby Tianjin University — aims to bridge the gap between basic and applied science researchers in China.

Recent highlights in chemistry research include a 2018 Science paper in which Nankai researchers describe new organic solar panels with a high 17.3% sunlight-to-electricity conversion rate, and Nankai chemist, Zhou Qilin, receiving first prize in China’s National Natural Science Awards in January 2020 for synthesizing a highly efficient molecular catalyst. The catalyst is now being used by international pharmaceutical and chemical companies for drug and pesticide development.

Shenzhen University, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 41.02; % change: 2,572.5%; Place: 14th

Following Shenzhen University’s establishment in the Chinese city of Shenzhen in 1983, two of China’s top universities, Peking and Tsinghua, seconded teaching staff to the fledgling institution. Today, Shenzhen University is a rising star in high-quality research in chemistry, which accounts for more than half of its total output in the Nature Index.

Among Shenzhen’s 45 research institutes are the Key Laboratory of Environmental Chemistry and Ecological Remediation and the Key Laboratory of Functional Polymers. Its College of Chemistry and Environmental Engineering is home to 100 faculty members.

In 2019, Shenzhen University researchers developed a graphene aerogel that can sense electromagnetic radiation, which could have applications in thermal imaging. The findings were published in ACS Nano.