US loses top spot to China in chemistry papers amid Washington’s increased scrutiny of foreign ties in basic research

Coco Feng

China has for the first time topped the charts as the world’s biggest producer of high-quality research in chemistry, knocking the US down to second place, according to the latest survey by a Nature database.

The change in leadership comes amid a narrowing tech gap between the two largest economies and escalating tensions as Washington becomes worried over foreign scientific ties and influence.

China’s output of papers related to chemistry study grew nearly 18 per cent to 6,183.75 in 2018, while US output, after having led for three consecutive years, dropped 6.2 per cent to 5,371.32, according to Nature Index, a database of academic papers compiled by Nature Research, which measures each nation's contribution to articles by tracking papers in 82 journals.

Amid an ongoing trade war between the two nations, technology and scientific ties have come under the spotlight, with calls from Congress and the White House to crack down on the open exchange of scientific information with China.

A new report commissioned by the US National Science Foundation argues that US pre-eminence in science and technology “has not gone unchallenged” and China “may now be gaining an upper hand.” The report, authored by Virginia-based consulting group JASON, which has advised Washington since the days of the cold war with the Soviet Union, addressed the politically sensitive issue of foreign influence on US-funded research.

China narrows gap with US in scientific research activity amid trade war

It recommended that American scientists who hide foreign ties should face sanctions for research misconduct.

Earlier this week the US House passed the 2020 National Defence Authorisation Act that would create an inter-agency working group “to coordinate activities to better protect federally funded research and development from foreign interference.”

Beijing has been beefing up efforts to become a global power in scientific research. The State Council’s five-year plan for scientific innovation mandated a shift from “a follower” to “a follower who catches up and sometimes leads”.

The Thousand Talents Plan, a national talent recruitment programme that has seen more than 6,000 overseas Chinese students and academics return since its establishment in 2008, is now being downplayed by Beijing due to escalating tensions with the US.

Although China still lags the US in cutting edge scientific research, it is quickly narrowing the gap. The Research Leadership Index (RLI) this year gave China a score of 139.68, up from 118.38 last year, compared with 204.89 for the US, down from 227.39 a year earlier.

However, the quality of Chinese research has been brought into question by a disproportionate number of faked peer reviews and plagiarised publications. Although China published 8 per cent of the world's scientific articles as of November this year, it accounted for 24.2 per cent of all retractions as of November 2017, according to a recent Nature report. In comparison, the US accounted for 30.7 per cent of the world’s scientific articles and recorded 28.1 per cent of retractions during the same period, proportionally lower compared to the total articles published.

In June this year, the Chinese government issued a document aimed at improving academic integrity among its scientists, in which it describes honesty as the “bottom line”.

In the chemistry field, the rankings from No. 3 to No. 10 remained unchanged since 2017, and were held by Germany, Japan, UK, France, South Korea, India, Canada and Spain. All except Spain saw a decrease in research output, with Japan falling the steepest, down 12.6 per cent, according to the Nature database.

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