China’s research spending pays off

Research power: technicians at a gene-sequencing lab in Nanjing, China.Credit: Aleksandar Plavevski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Chinese research outputs enjoyed something of a boom last year. The performance of Jiangsu University is a good example. Its campus sits on the banks of the Yangtze River in the city of Zhenjiang, which is about a three-hour drive inland from Shanghai. The university saw its ‘adjusted Share’ score in the Nature Index, which tracks author affiliations in research articles across 82 high-quality science journals, skyrocket by 118% between 2020 and 2021.

Share — Nature Index’s key metric — is a fractional count for an article allocated to an institution, city or country/region, that takes into account the proportion of authors on the article who are affiliated with that institution or location. Adjusted Share takes account of a small variation in the total number of articles in the Nature Index.

Jiangsu University is not an anomaly among Chinese institutions. According to an analysis of the Nature Index Annual Tables 2022, released today, the 31 fastest-rising institutions, as judged by their change in adjusted Share, were all in China. (See also ‘Leading institutions in the Nature Index 2022 Annual Tables’.) Out of the top 50 fastest-rising institutions, just 10 were from other countries or regions. This marks a significant change compared with the 2021 rankings, in which China could lay claim to only two out of the top ten fastest-rising institutions. These were the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Researchers speculate that last year’s poor showing by Chinese institutions might have been a blip; they think that the latest results could instead be a sign that the Chinese government’s long-term investments in science are beginning to bear fruit.

A similar pattern emerges when looking at China’s performance as a country alongside the other leading science nations in the Nature Index (see ‘Leading countries 2021’). The United States retains the top position with a share of 19,857.35 for 2021, but its adjusted share fell by 6.2% in 2021, the largest decline posted by the 10 leading countries and its steepest fall since 2015. China is in second place and its share is 16,753.86, with a 14.4% growth in adjusted share in 2021, the largest such increase among the leading 10 countries in the 2022 Annual Tables. This was a significant improvement on the previous year when the nation posted an increase of 1.2%.

Bar chart of leading countries in the Nature Index for 2021, with their 2020 Share also included.

Source: Nature Index

South Korea and Switzerland, in eighth and ninth place, respectively, also made improvements. In 2021, South Korea’s adjusted Share increased by 2.3%, compared with 1.9% in 2020. Although Switzerland reported a 1.7% decline in 2021, this was an improvement on 2020’s 6.6% decrease.

Money talks

“It’s no big secret, money is the main thing here” when it comes to China’s growth, says Miguel Lim, an education and international development researcher at the University of Manchester, UK. Lim is a founding convenor of the China and Higher Education Network, an organization that brings together researchers around the world who are interested in Chinese higher education. “There’s been a steady and enormous increase in research funding [in China] and it’s taken time to percolate through, but I think that’s what we’re starting to see,” he adds.

Cong Cao, a science-policy researcher at the University of Nottingham Ningbo in China, says the Chinese government’s growing investment in research and development, which accounted for 2.4% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2021, continues to be a factor in China’s rise . Research expenditure, as a percentage of China’s gross domestic product, has risen steadily from 0.56% in 1996 to 2.14% in 2018, according to the World Bank (see ‘Steady spending)’.

The country’s science-spending spree began in 1995 under what was known as Project 211. The ’21’ in the name was a nod to the twenty-first century, for which the policy aimed to prepare universities. The second ‘1’ was a reference to the roughly 100 universities that were included in the project; these institutions were given substantial funding to develop their research capacity.

Three years later, the government followed up with Project 985, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Peking University in Beijing. The policy issued further grants to nine universities from Project 211 to build new research centers, creating the C9 league — often described as China’s answer to the Ivy League group of eight prestigious universities in the eastern United States. Project 985 has since expanded to include 39 universities.

In 2017, the Chinese government announced the Double First-Class Initiative, which identified 140 universities with the potential to become world-class institutions. It also earmarked various disciplines in which China could become a world leader.

“I wouldn’t call it a vanity project. There are clearly reputational elements to all this, but the investments have been made to achieve strategic dominance in areas that China considers important, like engineering science,” says Lim. “It isn’t just about a position in the rankings, it’s also about competition with the United States at a strategic high level.”

Long term thinking

The consistency of funding has also had an impact, says Hamish Coates, director of higher-education research at Tsinghua University in Beijing, because it means researchers can reliably plan for the years to come. The Double First-Class strategy has enshrined the government’s commitment to science until 2050, for example. “That sends a message that the government understands how science is done,” says Coates.

Eventually, however, Chinese investments in science will taper off once a critical mass of research has been reached, says Coates, although that might not happen for many years. “We see diminishing returns in the traditional powerhouses like the United Kingdom and United States. If you add another US$1 million to research there, you don’t see the same uplift as you would in China. That’s just economics 101, but that will start to happen in China one day,” he says.

Pandemic impacts

Is it a coincidence that Chinese institutions’ Share scores in the Nature Index rose faster between 2020 and 2021 than for universities elsewhere in the world? Did the COVID-19 pandemic influence the results? It’s impossible to say for sure, says Lim. “In the United Kingdom, we slowed down as we were told to support students first as we shifted to online teaching and to ensure student safety,” says Lim. “I can speculate that Western researchers were busy doing other things like that, but how can I say that for sure without data?”

Those data aren’t available, so it’s impossible to know whether Chinese researchers were less bogged down by the consequences of COVID-19 than were their colleagues elsewhere. “I would be really cautious about the COVID question,” Lim says.

Coates thinks it’s too early to see the effect of the pandemic in the Nature Index tables — he says that won’t be seen for a few years to come. “You’ve got to work it back. The research included in the 2022 tables might have been funded back in 2017; it’s not like all that research was done in 2020,” says Coates. “You can’t just say it’s all down to COVID.”

A question of work culture

Academics the world over lament the publish-or-perish culture, in which publishing in a high-impact journal is cherished above all else, but such a culture is especially pervasive in China, says Lim. “It’s a higher bar to clear than here in the United Kingdom. Here, you can begin your career without too many publications under your belt,” he says. “But in China, universities will demand a certain number of publications from even master’s or PhD students before they get jobs.” Often, says Cao, graduate students in China have to publish several papers, otherwise they are not allowed to graduate.

Whereas many Western researchers have denounced the pressure to keep churning out papers, saying it creates a toxic workplace culture, the heavy emphasis on publishing papers for career progression could partly explain China’s dominance in the list of fastest-rising institutions, says Lim. There are also ways in which the higher-education system in China can act as a valve to release excess pressure, however, and this could help to fuel research output by alleviating some of the risk that comes with an intense publish-or-perish mentality. “When you reach 60 years of age in China, you’re on the retirement track and you move into mentoring for the young people. That’s really important,” says Coates. “In the West, you get people in their eighties going up against young researchers for grants.”

It’s not possible to predict or explain year-on-year trends in isolation. This makes it difficult to understand why China’s performance in the fastest-rising institutions this year differs so much from last year. Given the consistent investment in Chinese research and development, however, it’s possible that this year’s strong performance is a harbinger of what’s to come.

“The tables show that China’s investment in research through their large and now well-established institutions is resulting in sustained research output in the natural sciences,” says David Swinbanks, founder of the Nature Index. He adds: “While the Annual Tables are a good indicator of high research output in the natural sciences, we encourage readers to use the findings alongside other scientific outputs such as data, software and intellectual property when considering research quality and institutional performance.”

Leading Institutions in the Nature Index 2022 Annual Tables

For the tenth year running, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing maintained its status as the leading institution in the Nature Index, with a share of 1,963.00 in 2021. (The Nature Index launched in 2014, with data going back to 2012.) Its Share is more than double that of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is in second place with a share of 910.93.

The University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) in Beijing made its debut among the top ten global institutions in the Nature Index 2022 Annual Tables (see ‘Leading institutions 2021’), jumping from 13th to 8th place, knocking the University of Tokyo down to 14th place, its lowest rank since 2015.

Bar chart of leading institutions in the Nature Index for 2021, with their Share score for 2020 also included.

Source: Nature Index

UCAS also achieved the highest growth among the leading institutions in the Nature Index: its Share jumped from 425.45 in 2020 to 530.20 in 2021, representing a 21.4% increase in adjusted Share.

The University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei isn’t far behind, jumping two positions to ninth place. After missing out on a place among the leading ten institutions in 2020, Peking University in Beijing jumped two positions to secure tenth place.

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