The top 10 countries for scientific research in 2018

These countries were the year's largest contributors to papers published in the past year in the 82 leading journals tracked by the Nature Index.

  • Bec Crew

John Kovac of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Harvard's Clay Telescope. The US is the most prolific country in the Nature Index, and Harvard is its most prolific institution. Credit: Rick Friedman/ via Getty Images

The top 10 countries for scientific research in 2018

These countries were the year's the largest contributors to papers published in the 82 leading journals tracked by the Nature Index.

1 July 2019

Bec Crew

Rick Friedman/ via Getty Images

John Kovac of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Harvard's Clay Telescope. The US is the most prolific country in the Nature Index, and Harvard is its most prolific institution.

China, with a remarkable rise in high-quality research output in 2018, is gaining on the dominant United States. In the top 10, Australia has jostled Spain out of 10th spot.

View the 2019 Annual Tables Countries/Territories top 50.

1. United States of America

The United States is the most prolific publisher of high-quality science in the world, but China is closing the gap with astonishing rapidity.

Output from the US was down in 2018 compared with 2017, but it continues to be bolstered by its top-performing institutes: Harvard University, Stanford University, MIT and the National Institutes of Health.

The life sciences accounts for almost 50% of the nation’s output in the natural sciences, followed by chemistry, physical sciences, and Earth and environmental sciences, respectively.

In 2018, its biggest collaborative partners were China, the United Kingdom and Germany, while smaller countries, Australia and Switzerland, also made it into its top 10 collaborators list.

In the 2019 Nature Index Biomedical Sciences supplement, the US dominated the Top 200 Institutions table, counting seven of the top 10 institutions, and 15 of the top 20.

2. China

China’s rise in the research rankings is a well-told story, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. Its increase in FC in 2018 has been meteoric, and it’s got the whole world’s attention.

While chemistry accounts for around 50% of China’s output in the Nature Index, the physical sciences are also a major strength. Its top five performing institutes are the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Peking University, Nanjing University, Tsinghua University, and the University of Science and Technology of China.

In early 2018, the US National Science Foundation released a report showing that, as far back as 2016, China overtook the US as the top producer of science and engineering articles tracked by Scopus. But in terms of high-quality natural sciences research output tracked by the Nature Index, the US still reigns supreme.

3. Germany

With two institutions in the Nature Index Top 100 Global Institutions table, Germany is a force in high-quality research publishing.

Its top institutions, the Max Planck Society and Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, are among the top 10 in the physical sciences, chemistry, life sciences, Earth and environmental sciences, and global research institutes categories for 2018.

In recent years, the country has become known as a desired destination for researchers, boasting a relatively low cost of living, stable growth and high research and development (R&D) spending.

It also counts more than 270 collaborative research centres that are funded by the German Research Foundation for up to 12-year periods, which allow researchers to commit to complex, long-term, multidisciplinary projects across universities and institutes.

4. United Kingdom

As Nature reported in April, Brexit has already damaged research in the UK. That said, it remains one of the world’s best in producing high-quality research in the natural sciences, retaining its long-standing fourth rank in the Nature Index Top 50 Countries/Territories table.

The UK’s top institutions include the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, Imperial College London and University College London, and its top collaborators for 2018 were the US, Germany and France.

In recent months, the closure of key animal-research facilities in the UK has sparked outcry from affected scientists, raising questions around the UK’s contribution to global mouse genetics research. Now, as Brexit lurches uncertainly onwards, the world is taking a closer look at the important research that goes on around it.

5. Japan

With an impressive standing among the world’s best research publishers, Japan is working hard to retain its position. While its strategy of funding selected institutions to boost their overseas collaboration is starting to bear fruit, it continues to look outwards in an effort to arrest the alarming decline in its high-quality scientific research.

Its top-performing institute, the University of Tokyo, also ranked highly in the 2019 Nature Index Annual tables in the physical sciences, academic institutions, and top 100 global institutions categories. Kyoto University, Osaka University and RIKEN round out the country’s top four.

Japan’s research performance was the focus of a recent Nature Index supplement, which revealed how its proportion of articles co-authored with international researchers has increased, but correcting the slide in overall output is proving difficult for the nation.

6. France

France’s strengths in the natural sciences are diverse, with chemistry, physical sciences, and life sciences accounting for roughly equal shares in its high-quality research output, followed by Earth and environmental sciences.

In 2018, its highest-performing institute, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), had more than six times the fractional count (FC) of its second highest- performing institute, the Pierre and Marie Curie University.

The CNRS is not only France’s premier research institute, it also shines on the world stage, ranking highly in the physical sciences, Earth and environmental sciences, chemistry, and top 100 global institutions categories for 2018.

In February, France announced plans for its national strategy for research, promising funding stability and better career prospects for young researchers. But, as Nature reported, scientists say significant new investment will be crucial.

7. Canada

Universities across Canada might have reported a deluge of applications in 2017, as students and researchers sought respite from the anti-science stance of the Trump administration in the US and the disruption of Brexit in Europe, but this has yet to impact on its high-quality research output. Canada is one of a number of high-ranking countries in 2018 that saw a downturn in FC, compared with 2017.

Canada’s best-performing institute, the University of Toronto, reportedly saw an 81% increase in acceptance numbers from American students in 2017 compared to 2016, and the University of Alberta, ranked fourth in Canada by FC, saw international graduate student applications rise by 80%.

More recently, the country’s budget decisions around research for 2019 have been controversial, with small spending bumps for genomics and physics presenting a stark contrast to the $4-billion (US$3-billion) boost for basic science and research in 2018.

8. Switzerland

For a nation of just 8.4 million, Switzerland punches well above its weight in high-quality research output.

In 2018, an analysis by the United States National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) found that it contributed nearly three times more articles to the 1% of highly cited papers indexed by the Scopus database in 2013 than would be expected given its total output, due to factors such as its comparatively large research investment and hosting of the Large Hadron Collider.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), the institution with the highest output of high-quality research in the natural sciences in the country, had almost twice the output of the second most prolific institution, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).

In 2018, ETH Zurich’s total revenue rose to CHF 1.8 billion (US$1.8 billion), with the federal government contributing CHF 1.3 billion to its funds.

Switzerland is also home to F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG and Novartis International AG, two multinational heavyweights in the pharmaceutical sector, signifying the country’s strength in the biomedical sciences.

9. South Korea

Thanks in no small part to its high R&D spending, South Korea’s strengths lie in the physical sciences and chemistry, and, as a 2018 study by Canadian researcher Mikko Packalen showed, in developing novel biomedical concepts.

Its biggest collaborative partners in 2018 were the US, China and Japan, and Seoul National University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology were its top performers.

In mid-2018, Nature reported that, while the country’s research was flourishing in some ways, it was struggling in others.

Academic publishing has been booming, and national R&D spending by industry and government was 4.24% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016, which was the second-highest percentage for any country worldwide. But many scientists – particularly those in smaller research groups – have communicated their dissatisfaction with the country’s funding decisions.

10. Australia

Australia has the rare distinction of being the only country to shake up the top 10 in the 2019 Nature Index Top 50 Countries/Territories table, and the only country in the top 10 apart from China where FC increased in 2018. While the top nine has remained unchanged for three years, Australia jostled Spain out of the 10th slot, up from rank 11 in 2017.

The country’s output by subject is fairly evenly spread, with the life sciences contributing the largest share to its high-quality research output, as tracked by the Nature Index. The University of Queensland is the best performing Australian research institute, followed by UNSW Sydney and Monash University in Melbourne.

But it’s not all good news. In late 2018, Australian scientists expressed disappointment over a budget update that cuts $328.5 million (US$230 million) from research funding that had been expected over the next four years, setting government investment in R&D at its lowest in 40 years.

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