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Rising stars in physical sciences 2020

Group photo of researchers at the National University of Singapore

A team led by Benjamin Tee (far left) at the National University of Singapore has developed an artificial nervous system that can respond 1,000 times faster than the human sensory nervous system.Credit: National University of Singapore

The University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) in Beijing is the fastest-rising institution in physical-sciences research in the Nature Index 2020 Annual Tables.

Its change in adjusted Share from 2015 to 2019 was 101.67, representing a 353.5% increase over 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.)

UCAS is also in first position in the fastest-rising overall, the fastest-rising academic institutions, and fastest-rising chemistry lists in the Nature Index 2020 Annual Tables (see Graphic). (The Nature Index is one indicator of institutional research performance. See Editor’s note below.) See the 2020 Annual Tables Top 100 institutions for physical sciences 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 physical-sciences research.

Huazhong University of Science and Technology, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 51.14; % change: 143.5%; Place: 4th

Located in the city of Wuhan, China, the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) has long been considered one of the country’s leading engineering colleges, with strengths in mechanical, electronic and optical engineering.

As of 2019, it had 61,700 undergraduate and graduate students and 3,400 faculty members. It hosts 19 members of Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering, 65 full-time Changjiang scholars awarded by the Ministry of Education, and 73 recipients of the Distinguished Young Scientist award, granted by the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

The university manages the Wuhan National Laboratory for Optoelectronics, which was one of China's first national labs. The lab sits in the heart of the city’s ‘Optics Valley’ — a major innovation hub located in the Wuhan East Lake High-tech Development Zone, known internally for producing optical fibres and cables.

HUST also has strong ties to China’s defence industry, with at least six laboratories devoted to defence research. In addition to the university’s main campus near Wuhan’s East Lake, HUST has a satellite medical campus in the nearby town of Hankou, a result of a merger with the Tongji Medical College in 2000.

Wuhan University, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 34.82; % change: 132.1%; Place: 8th

Located in Wuhan, the capital city of the Hubei province in central China, Wuhan University (WHU) is one of China's oldest institutions of higher learning, set up by the reformist bureaucrat, Zhang Zhidong, in 1893.

It grew significantly in 2000, when it merged with the Wuhan University of Hydraulic and Electrical Engineering, the Wuhan Technical University of Surveying and Mapping, and Hubei Medical University, and is today one of China’s most prestigious universities, with strengths in basic research, engineering, medical sciences and social sciences.

In 2019, WHU had 29,405 undergraduate, 26,862 graduate and 2,162 international students. Among its 3,770 faculty members, 18 are members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering, and 65 are recipients of the Distinguished Young Scientist award, from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

The university hosts four State Key Laboratories — facilities that receive funding and administrative support from the Chinese government — and two state engineering research centres.

The WHU School of Physics and Technology conducts cutting-edge studies in basic research and engineering. As of June 2019, it had earned nearly 250 million yuan (US$35.2 million) in research grants.

National University of Singapore

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 32.70; % change: 35.3%; Place: 10th

Established in 1905, the National University of Singapore (NUS) is the oldest higher education institution in the country. Located in the country’s southwest, adjacent to the neighbourhood of Kent Ridge, it is fast becoming a strong global contender in the physical sciences, with papers in the discipline accounting for more than half of its total output in the Nature Index.

NUS has roughly 10,800 graduate students, 4,000 research staff, and 2,600 faculty members. It runs several major physics facilities, including the Centre for Quantum Technologies and the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials, which specializes in graphene research.

In January 2020, a team led by Barbaros Özyilmaz, head of the NUS Materials Science and Engineering Department, created a one-atom-thick amorphous (or shapeless) material that is both stable and freestanding, and could have important applications in batteries and semiconductors. The research was published in Nature.

Tianjin University, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 30.62; % change: 113.0%; Place: 11th

Established in the metropolis of Tianjin, China, in 1895, Tianjin University claims to be the country’s oldest modern-style university. With strengths in chemistry and engineering research, it specializes in research in battery technology innovation. In 2019, a team from Tianjin University published work on alternatives to lithium batteries, such as sodium-ion and zinc-air batteries.

In 2018, the university opened its Institute of Molecular Aggregation Science, which explores the phenomenon of organic molecules that fluoresce only when packed densely together. Known as aggregation-induced emission, it could be harnessed for biomedical engineering and to produce sensors for environmental monitoring.

Tianjin has 17,724 undergraduate, 11,410 master’s, and 4,025 doctoral students enrolled, and 4,727 faculty and staff. Among its institutes and experimental centres are the Tianjin University Physical Experiment Center and the Tianjin Low-Dimensional Materials Physics and Preparation Technology Key Laboratory.

South China University of Technology, China

Change in adjusted Share (2015–19): 30.14; % change: 243.5%; Place: 12th

Located in Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province and the third-largest city in mainland China, with a population of 14 million, the South China University of Technology (SCUT) sits in the heart of one of the country’s biggest economic centres.

In 2019, SCUT had enrolled 25,177 undergraduate, 16,399 graduate, and 1,063 international students, and had a faculty team of 3,188.

With most of its nine State Key Laboratories and technological centres focused on engineering and industrial technologies, SCUT has achieved significant advances in its basic research in recent years. In 2018, its papers in engineering, materials science, chemistry and agricultural science were ranked in the global top 1%, by measure of citations, according to Essential Science Indicators from Web of Science.


This article is part of Nature Index 2020 Annual Tables, an editorially independent supplement. Advertisers have no influence over the content.

Editor’s note: The Nature Index is one indicator of institutional research performance. The metrics of Count and Share used to order Nature Index listings are based on an institution’s or country’s publication output in 82 natural-science journals, selected on reputation by an independent panel of leading scientists in their fields. Nature Index recognizes that many other factors must be taken into account when considering research quality and institutional performance; Nature Index metrics alone should not be used to assess institutions or individuals. Nature Index data and methods are transparent and available under a creative commons licence at

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 05 May 2020: This article originally referred to Barbaros Özyilmaz as head of the NUS Materials Science and Engineering Faculty, when it should have read head of the NUS Materials Science and Engineering Department. It has now been corrected.


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