Superpowered science: charting China’s research rise

From output and investments to the nation’s most prolific areas, a visual overview of China’s research performance.

27 May 2021

Data analysis by Bo Wu. Infographic by Tanner Maxwell and Catherine Armitage.

Nature Index

Source: Nature Index

Here we explore China’s performance in research output in the field of natural sciences based on Nature Index data and other key measures (see ‘A guide to the Nature Index’).

The country's leading institutions — and those that have achieved considerable increases in output over the past five years — are featured as major players in China's efforts to close the gap with the United States in key subject areas.

Closing the gaps

China surpassed the United States in chemistry in 2018 and is approaching it in Earth and environmental sciences and physical sciences according to Share.

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Source: Nature Index

Output by Share

China’s leading five institutions accounted for 25% of the country’s total Share between 2015 and 2020.

Output by share: graphic comparing the output of international regions and Chinese universities

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Source: Nature Index

Source: Nature Index. Data analysis by Bo Wu. Infographic by Tanner Maxwell and Catherine Armitage.

Return on investment

For every US$ billion spent on research and development, China achieves 37.47 worth of Share, in the mid-range of efficiency among the leading six nations in the Nature Index.

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Talent magnets

Among Chinese institutions, Tsinghua University has attracted the largest proportion of researchers from outside China over the past 25 years, even though it was displaced from China’s leading five overall by the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2020.

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Source: Nature Index

Areas of strength

Shown here are the ten areas of China with the highest output by Share in the Nature Index in 2020, making clear the concentration of high-performing research institutions in the east of the country. The strongest-performing institution for each of the ten areas is also shown.

Six of these ten are also among the ten leading institutions in China overall. The country’s leading institution by Share, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is not shown because its affiliated institutions are dispersed throughout China, as is its output.

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Source: Nature Index

Peking University (1),with the third-highest overall Share among Chinese institutions, is second-highest in the life sciences. The Beijing municipality contributes more of China’s Share (20%) than any other area, followed by Shanghai (11%).

Shanghai Jiao Tong University (2) jumped from 14th to 8th place among leading Chinese institutions in the Nature Index 2015–20, and had the greatest Share rise among the leading 10 in the past year (21%).

Sun Yat-sen University (4) achieved a 421% increase in adjusted Share in Earth and environmental sciences from 2015 to 2020, but Guangdong’s second-highest achiever, the Southern University of Science and Technology, contributed most to the area’s status as the fastest riser among the leading 10, with a 1,100% overall increase in adjusted Share from 2015 to 2020.

University of Science and Technology of China (7) had the second-highest Share in China in 2020 overall and in the chemical and physical sciences subject fields.

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