Emerging hotspots for physical sciences

Less prominent research nations are carving out a niche.

  • Tim Hornyak

An optical trapping setup at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Credit: CSIR

Emerging hotspots for physical sciences

16 August 2016


An optical trapping setup at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Less prominent research nations are carving out a niche.

South Africa's overall contribution to top natural science journals - as tracked by the Nature Index - grew by more than 40% between 2012 and 2015, an increase driven by a near two-thirds rise in physical sciences research. The country's output in physical sciences research, as measured by weighted fractional count, increased from 23.70 in 2012 to 39.31 in 2015.

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.

But the country's improved research performance has occurred against a backdrop of student protests, which have erupted at some of its top research universities. The students are calling for more affordable university education.

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.

More than 80 South African institutions published research in journals included in the Nature Index since 2012, including the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Thailand's science focus

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. The country's contribution to physical sciences increased from a weighted fractional count of 8.58 in 2012 to 17.06 in 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.

Alisdair Macdonald

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. Full size image

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.”

By Tim Hornyak