Jump in Quality of Chinese Basic Science Research
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Jump in Quality of Chinese Basic Science Research

Apr. 05, 2016  |   Blog   |  0 comments

The Chinese government has always considered the improvement of the country’s science and technology capacity as one of the core components of national development. Since exceeding 1 percent of GDP spending on R&D in 2000, the country has consistently poured more resources into the scientific research area and in 2015, the figure hit 2.1 percent. The current projection is for R&D expenditure to hit 2.5 percent of GDP in 2020. At the same time, full time equivalent R&D personnel increased from 1.37 million in 2005 to almost 3.2 million in 2012. The density of research personnel in terms of number of R&D personnel per 10,000 workforce increased from 18 to 40 in the same period.

The Chinese are now leading in Engineering Index citations and they rank number two in the Science Citation Index (SCI). Despite the significant increase in the quantity of academic output, many experts have criticized the system as overly bureaucratic, inefficient and underperforming, and note that the quality of research seems to be less important than the quantity. Such claims are based on the much lower average number of citation that Chinese papers receive in the SCI as compared to papers published by traditional R&D leaders such as US, UK & Germany. The use of citation number is an accepted ex-post method of gleaming the significance of the published research paper. However, one cannot use it as an ex-ante way of looking at the quality of the published papers. The recently devised Nature Index can fill the gap in the area of science research.

The Nature Index, from the Nature Publishing Group, is a database of author affiliation information collated from research articles published in an independently selected group of 68 high-quality science journals. These 68 journals amount to a reasonably consensual upper echelon of journals in the natural sciences and includes both multidisciplinary journals and some of the most highly selective journals within the main disciplines of the natural sciences, including Physical Science, Life Science, Chemistry, Earth & Environmental Sciences. The intense competition and tough selection criteria for papers to appear in these journals makes the Nature Index a good proxy for quality publication in an ex-ante sense.

The Nature Index is a good way to gauge a country or an institution’s scientific capability in terms of quality output. Since the first Nature Index database started in 2012, China’s total contribution has risen to become the second largest in the world, surpassed only by the United States. But, what sets China apart is the rapid growth of its weighted fractional count (WFC). WFC reflects the size of the contribution a country's researchers have made to every study published in the 68 journals included in the index. While China’s contribution grew 37% from 2012 to 2014, the United States saw a 4% drop over the same period.

Top 20 Countries in 2014

There is no doubt that the quality of basic science research of China has improved consistently in recent years based on the Nature Index. The Chinese government has initiated a series of reforms recently to improve the integrity and efficiency of the R&D sector. Chinese spending on basic science research will hit 10 percent of all R&D spending by 2020. Let us watch the Nature Index in the coming years to see if such efforts will bear fruit and we will also watch whether impact studies based on citation numbers in the coming years will also show a significant improvement on the research impact of Chinese science.