Innovations in Science: China Changing the Face of Global Research

On December 10 when this year's Nobel Prize winners assemble in Stockholm for the annual award ceremony, there is one particular Laureate in the science categories whose award may very well signal the start of a trend.

Youyou Tu, of the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Beijing, is one of the co-winners of this year's Nobel Prize in medicine for her work in "discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria". Born in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China in 1930, she has no postgraduate degree (it was not offered in China prior to 1979), has not had any overseas research or study experiences and is not a member of any Chinese national academies. Indeed she is the first winner of a Nobel science prize to have spent all her life and career in China.

Tu's accomplishments are certainly laudable in themselves but more to the point is the symbolism of the emergence of Chinese research on the global stage and its impact on the research landscape in the years to come. According to Scopus data, China is a highly prolific source of research output. In the decade from 2004 to 2014 China's research output has grown more than 400 percent. By comparison, global output during the same period grew 70 percent and in the US, the output increased a little over 30 percent.

China's position as a major player in the international economy is not new by any means. Many global companies have relocated their manufacturing operations there and the country sits on vast natural resources. This may have some bearing on China's research output by journal category where electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science dominate. The Journal Rare Earths Industry estimates that China possesses 40 percent of total global reserves of rare earth elements (REE), the largest in the world. Rare earth are essential minerals widely used in a disparate range of technologies such as the manufacture of wind turbines, hybrid cars, camera and telescope lenses, carbon lighting applications, catalytic converters in cars, refrigeration, television and computer screens as well as control rods for nuclear reactors. However it should be noted that China also demonstrates solid output in such disciplines as medicine, materials science, chemistry, physics and astronomy, as well as biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology.

Output from Chinese research institutions now surpasses several of the world's most prestigious and oldest universities. While Harvard ranks highest in overall output (140,817 publications from 2010 to 2015), the Chinese Academy of Science output (76,582 publications) ranks third, close behind that of the University of Toronto (82,832 publications for the same period), and ahead of such venerable institutions as Oxford, Cambridge, University of Tokyo, University of Munich, Indian Institute of Sciences and France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. China also collaborates extensively with a broad range of global partners (204 countries) almost equal to that of the U.S. (233 countries). Its primary collaborative partners are in AIPAC countries: Japan, Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan but there is also significant collaborative research arrangements with the west, most notably institutions in the U.S, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and France.

The rise in China's university system is also the subject of a new book: Palace of Ashes, by Mark S. Ferrara, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York, Oneonta. Professor Ferrara looks at the significant investment in China's university system by its government as part of the country's move to be more of a global player. However, according to some experts, it is somewhat hampered in its development of innovation because of the focus on rote memorization in its educational system as opposed to knowledge gained through creative exploration.

China's research capacity will continue to grow as their scientists and scholars have access to greater resources. As an evolving player in the academic world - second only to the United States in the number of research articles published - China's steep upward trajectory has been an outcome of a 15-year missive outlined in the State Council's Mid- and Long-Term Development Plan for Science and Technology: 2006 - 2020, which aims to create a science and technology engine that is capable of driving 60% of China's national development projects. In order to do so, the council has recommended that R&D expenditure be pegged at 2.5% of the country's GDP by 2020. This positive trending has created the kind of environment for scholarly publishers like Elsevier to provide the much needed research infrastructure that will enable China's scholastic ecosystem to be developed through network expansion, knowledge sharing and critical skills training. All essential elements that will be needed to elevate and amplify the quality of the country's growing contribution to international research.

Youyou Tu's Nobel Prize is likely to be the first of many for Chinese researchers in the science categories. Their contributions to the advancement of science and betterment of society will be valued in the decades to come.

Author's note: Elsevier congratulates all the winners of this year's Nobel Prizes. A selection of high impact papers of this year's chemistry, physics, medicine and economics winners are available free of charge on Elsevier Connect.