US is still first in science, but China is rising fast as funding stalls elsewhere

15 Jun 2017 | News
American dominance in biomedical research is shrinking, as international collaboration becomes ever more prominent

US scientists still publish significantly more biomedical research than any other country and the US still leads the world in research and development spending, but its dominance is slowly shrinking, as China’s skyrocketing investment in science over the last two decades begins to pay off, according to an analysis published today.

Chinese biomedical research now ranks fourth in the world for the total number of new discoveries published in the six top tier journals, and the country spent three quarters what the US spent on research and development during 2015. It is projected that China’s R&D budget will match that of the US by 2022.

Meanwhile, the analysis shows individual journal papers increasingly involve researchers from around the world, with the last 15 years ushering in an era of “team science” as research funding in the US, Europe, Canada and Australia, stagnated.

The number of authors has also grown. In 2000 only two percent of the research papers the new study looked at included 21 or more authors, by 2015 it was 12.5 per cent.

The analysis by researchers at the University of Michigan, is based on original research papers published in six top-tier and four mid-tier journals from 2000 to 2015, in addition to data on R&D investment over the same period.

They reviewed every issue of JAMA, The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell, Nature and Science, and of four mid-ranking journals, The British Medical Journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, Journal of Cell Science, FASEB Journal, which were chosen to represent the clinical and basic science aspects of research. (It is perhaps interesting to note that despite the rise of science elsewhere, US and UK journals maintain their dominance in publishing research).

Only papers that reported new results from basic research experiments, translational studies, clinical trials, metanalyses, and studies of disease outcomes, were included.

The analysis charts South Korea's entry into the top 10 countries for publications, as well as China's leap from outside the top 10 in 2000 to fourth place in 2015. In parallel there have been major increases in support for research in South Korea and Singapore since the start of the 21st Century.

The rise in global cooperation is striking. In 2000, 25 percent of papers in the six top-tier journals were by teams that included researchers from at least two countries. In 2015, that figure was closer to 50 percent. The increasing need for multidisciplinary approaches to make major advances, coupled with the advances of Internet-based collaboration tools, may have something to do with this, the researchers say.

The authors also observed what appears to be an increasing number of Chinese-born scientists who had trained in the U.S. going back to China after their training, where once most of them would have sought to stay in the US.

In addition, Singapore has been able to recruit several top notch US and other international scientists due to its marked increase in R&D investments.

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