Illustration of three mountains rising from a cityscape, two people stand on top of each mountain

Credit: Joey Guidone

It is only two years since the previous Nature Index supplement on China, but global events and the country’s astonishing pace of change means that was long enough to shift the dial on its place in world science. Back in 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full flow, data from the previous year revealed signs of a slowdown in the exponential rise in China’s contributions to the high-quality research tracked by Nature Index. After three years of double-digit growth, its adjusted Share had risen by just 1% in 2020. In the two years since, however, normal service has resumed and at a lightning pace; in 2022,China’s adjusted Share rose by 3,414, a 21% increase on the previous year.

This surge has been enough to propel China past the United States to become the leading nation for Share in natural-science journals. It represents a watershed moment, as we discuss in a feature article. The underlying data, and examples of the ground-breaking research emanating from China, also demonstrate how the nation is now broadening and deepening its scientific capacity in areas — such as environmental science, life sciences and humanities — that it still had major ground to make up a decade ago.

At the same time, there is ample evidence pointing towards a narrowing in terms of China’s international research collaboration with Western nations, especially the United States. As explained in this supplement’s comment article, there are numerous reasons, including political tensions, the pandemic’s interruption to scientific networking, and an emphasis on China’s researchers having a more domestic outlook. Global higher-education trends, meanwhile, point towards China becoming more self-confident in its ability to train the researchers of the future, instead of needing support from Western universities. These trends do not necessarily mean isolation. Indeed, China is forging new links with emerging research nations in Asia and Africa. What is certain is that the centre of gravity has shifted to the extent that whatever direction China takes next will shape science for years to come.