Report: China surpasses US in frontier research
China led the world in seven out of 11 research areas this year in terms of active frontier research, surpassing the United States for the first time, according to a report published on Wednesday.
The 2021 Research Fronts report, jointly published by the Institutes of Science and Development of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and global analytics firm Clarivate, identified 171 frontier research topics.
The topics included 110 "hot" and 61 emerging research fronts, which are divided into 11 broad research categories, from physics to clinical medicine. The list is compiled by analyzing data of highly influential and often-cited papers published from 2015 to 2020.
China achieved the highest scores in seven categories of the Research Leadership Index this year: agricultural, plant and animal sciences; ecological and environmental sciences; clinical medicine; chemistry and materials science; mathematics; information science; and economics, psychology and other social sciences.
China ranked second in geosciences, biological sciences and physics, and eighth in astronomy and astrophysics, according to the annual report.
The United States scored highest in four major areas: geosciences; biological sciences; physics; astronomy and astrophysics. It ranked second in the other seven categories.
When ranking an individual country's overall performance across all 11 areas, the United States remains the world's most active researcher, scoring a total of 209.23 points.
China was second with 191.43 points, up from 151.29 points last year. The gap in the Research Leadership Index scores between the two nations is less than 10 percent.
China is only slightly more active than the US in frontier research in clinical medicine, social sciences and information science this year, while the US enjoys a substantial lead in geosciences and biological sciences, as well as astronomy and astrophysics, the report said.
Yang Fan, a researcher at the Institutes of Science and Development of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said a major reason for China's higher rankings is due a great deal to Chinese scientists publishing a large number of highly influential papers on COVID-19.
The papers cover a wide range of topics from genetic information about the virus, to clinical trials of vaccines and drugs, to evaluating the social and psychological impacts of the pandemic, she said.
Gao Hongjun, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the annual report, which is the eighth of its kind, can help scientists and policymakers determine key research topics and trends by tracking emerging specialty areas of research.
Steen Lomholt-Thomsen, chief revenue officer at Clarivate, said the ability to identify emerging specialty areas of research can provide a distinct advantage for those seeking to monitor, support and advance the conduct of research, which is often done with finite resources.
This includes governments, policymakers, publishers, research administrators and commercial companies, he said. "Research fronts enable them to identify key players as potential collaborators and an opportunity to turn published research into a compelling competitive advantage with societal and economic impact," Lomholt-Thomsen said.
Of the 171 research fronts, 81 are led by the US, while China leads global research in 65 fronts. The two countries combined account for 85 percent of all the listed specialist research areas.
Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said it is encouraging to see China making such rapid progress in frontier sciences, but people should also keep a clear mind regarding both its accomplishments and shortcomings. "There is still a lot of room for collaboration, especially in regards to basic sciences," Gao said.