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China on rise in frontier science fields

By Zhang Zhihao | China Daily | Updated: 2019-11-27 08:48
Photo taken on Aug 27, 2019 shows China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in Southwest China's Guizhou province. [Photo/Xinhua]

Nation leads the world in 33 out of 137 research topics but is still lagging US

China is catching up with the United States in research contributions and activity in frontier sciences, and it currently leads the world in 33 out of 137 research topics in cutting-edge and new natural and social science fields, according to a report published on Tuesday.

The report, compiled by the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institutes of Science and Development and Clarivate Analytics, a global analytics firm, says that while the US has been on a gradual decline in activity and influence in research frontiers over the last three years, it remains the world's top contributor to frontier sciences and a leader in 80 of the 137 topics this year.

Findings from the report, named Research Front 2019, have been published annually since 2014 to help researchers and officials determine key scientific areas where the scientific community is most active, allowing them to identify scientific trends and areas of possible collaboration.

According to an index from the report evaluating a country's contribution to research frontiers, the US leads the world with a score of 204.9 points this year, followed by China with 139.7, the United Kingdom at 80.9, Germany at 67.5 and France at 46.3.

Since the index's launch in 2017, the US has remained the most active and influential contributor in research frontiers, but its score has dropped considerably from the 281.1 it had three years ago. China scored 118.8 at the time.

The report suggests that the gap between China and the US in research contributions and activity in frontier sciences is narrowing, partly due to China's steady rise in basic research capability.

"Strong basic research is the foundation of a technological powerhouse," said Bai Chunli, president of the academy.

The world's major science powers are all strengthening strategic planning in basic research in frontier sciences, which will become the new arena for future technological competition, he added.

"We will need to accurately identify key research fields and trends if we hope to make major original breakthroughs in frontier sciences, solve major science obstacles for national needs and support our nation's innovation-driven development."

The report's 137 frontier research fields are divided into 10 broad areas. Of those, the US leads in seven, while China leads in three: chemistry/materials sciences, math/computer sciences and engineering, and ecology/environmental studies.

However, China is significantly behind the US in terms of active frontier research in advanced fields such as clinical medicine, astronomy and astrophysics.

China also has a substantial gap with the US in physics, biology, earth sciences and social sciences such as economics and psychology, the report said.

Leng Fuhai, a researcher from the academy's Institutes of Science and Development, said the US is generally very strong and capable across most frontier fields, while China excels in a few areas but has noticeable shortcomings in others.

Leng said the 137 research topics were selected based on analyzing clusters of highly cited papers from various scientific fields in recent years.

"It represents the tip of the iceberg of the 10,587 research frontiers available," he said.

"China's basic research is moving forward with great momentum, and the world is seeing more Chinese names and scientific output from China in frontier science fields," he said.

"But we must also be aware of our shortcomings and address them in the future."

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