These 10 countries are the world’s best in physical sciences

Japan and Switzerland move up the ranks.

28 January 2020

Gemma Conroy

University of Texas at Arlington

Field cage at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland. Switzerland is ranked eighth in the world for physical sciences research output.

The United States is the global leader in physical sciences research, but China is rapidly closing the gap.

China achieved the largest growth in high-quality research output in the physical sciences for any country in 2018.

While more than half of the countries in this Nature Index top 10 saw a decline in their physical sciences output between 2017 and 2018, China achieved a 16% increase.

After maintaining fifth place for three consecutive years, Japan jostled the UK out of fourth position with a Share of 999.01+, which represented a 1.8% increase between 2017 and 2018.

Switzerland knocked Italy down to ninth place with a Share of 501.01, representing a 2% growth over the same period.

France remained firmly in the middle of the ranks, despite a 12.6% decrease in its output, the largest decline among all countries in the top 10.

See below for Nature Index's top 10 countries in physical sciences research.

1. United States of America

Share: 4,914.61, change in Share since 2017: -3.2%

The physical sciences account for one-quarter of the United States’ research in the Nature Index, and the country has held its own as the world’s largest producer of high-quality articles in the field.

Its three top institutions – Harvard University, Stanford University, and MIT – were all among the top 10 institutions in the physical sciences in the Nature Index 2019 Annual Tables. Stanford is also a leading producer of ‘big science’ articles , which involve 10 or more institutions, in physics and astronomy.

In 2018, Harvard researchers argued that the interstellar object, Oumuamua, could be an alien solar sail. The extraordinary claim, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, was the most-talked about physical sciences paper authored by US researchers in 2019, according to Altmetric.

2. China

Share: 3,377.86, change in Share since 2017: 16%

With its Share growing by an impressive 16% in just one year, China is a physical sciences heavyweight. After chemistry, papers in the physical sciences account for the majority of the country’s research output in the Nature Index.

The nation’s top institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is global leader in the physical sciences, taking first place in the top 100 institutions in the discipline in 2019.

The University of Chinese Academy of Sciences topped the Nature Index Young Universities ranking in the physical sciences.

China’s is set to become even more prolific in physical sciences research, with the launch of the Guizhou-based 500-metre FAST radio telescope in January 2020. The largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, the facility will be used to study pulsars and undertake long-term sky surveys.

3. Germany

Share: 1,513.38, change in Share since 2017: -5%

Despite its Share dropping by 5% between 2017 and 2018, Germany has maintained third place in this ranking for four consecutive years.

Its strong performance in the discipline can be credited in part to its leading institutions – the Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres – which placed among Nature Index's top 10 global institutions in the physical sciences and the top 10 institutions big science articles in physics and astronomy.

Germany is home to several key physics facilities, including the German Electron Synchrotron and the European X-ray Free-Electron Laser Facility, the world’s largest and brightest x-ray laser.

4. Japan

Share: 999.01, change in Share since 2017: 1.8%

While Japan’s scientific research has stalled in recent years, the country’s standing in the physical sciences remains strong. For the first time since 2015, Japan has jumped one spot in Nature Index's global physical sciences ranking.

The nation’s leading institution, the University of Tokyo (UTokyo), ranks sixth among the world’s top institutions in the physical sciences.

In 2019, Japanese researchers were part of an international team that captured the first image of a black hole. The paper, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, was among Japan’s most widely discussed papers that year.

5. United Kingdom

Share: 961.13, change in Share since 2017: -7.4%

The United Kingdom’s research may have fallen since 2017, but that hasn’t stopped its progress in the physical sciences, which accounts for around one-quarter of its output.

The University of Cambridge, the country’s second leading institution, houses the Cavendish Laboratory, which generated some of the most groundbreaking physics advances of the last century.

The UK is also a global team player in physical sciences research. In January 2020, the United Kingdom invested £65 million (US$85 million) in the United States’ Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, which involves researchers from several UK and US universities.

6. France

Share: 665.33, change in Share since 2017: -12.6%

France’s scientific research may have taken a hit in 2018, but it has maintained sixth position in this ranking for the fourth consecutive year.

Its top institution, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), is a major player in the discipline, taking third place in the top 10 institutions in the physical sciences in the Nature Index 2019 Annual Tables.

In a 2019 arXiv paper, French physicists claimed that they had created metallic hydrogen in the lab for the first time. If confirmed, the findings could pave the way to new superconductive materials and contribute new insights to planetary science.

7. South Korea

Share: 634.39, change in Share since 2017: 1%

South Korea is heavily invested in the physical sciences, which account for nearly half of its research in the Nature Index. The country's contribution to physical sciences papers in the Index grew slightly, by 1%, between 2017 and 2018.

South Korea’s top three institutions – Seoul National University, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and the Institute for Basic Science – all have a strong focus on the physical sciences, which makes up the majority of their research in the Nature Index for each one.

The nation’s young universities (aged 50 and under) are also rising up the ranks in the discipline, taking three spots among our top 10 young universities in the physical sciences in 2018.

8. Switzerland

Share: 501.01, change in Share since 2017: 2%

Home to the largest physics laboratory in the world, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), it’s no surprise that Switzerland is strongly represented in physical sciences research output. The country’s growth in research in the subject of 2% in just one year between 2017 and 2018 was the biggest increase of all countries in the top 10, after China.

Switzerland’s legacy in the physical sciences runs deep, with its top institution, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, producing nine Nobel laureates in physics, including Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli.

The nation is also strong international team player, counting the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom as its tightest partners. CERN is also one of the top-ranked contributors to big science articles in physics and astronomy in the Nature Index.

9. Italy

Share: 461.36, change in Share since 2017: -7.9%

The physical sciences continue to be Italy’s strongest subject, with papers in the discipline accounting for around half of the country’s research in the Nature Index.

The nation’s performance in physical sciences is largely driven by the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), its leading institution. INFN took the crown as the world’s top producer of high-affiliation articles in physics and astronomy and earned a place among the leading 50 institutions in the physical sciences.

Among 2019's most talked-about discoveries involving Italian researchers are the first image of our universe's ‘cosmic web’ (Science), a rotating supermassive black hole in the M87 galaxy (The Astrophysical Journal Letters), and the first observation of two-neutrino double electron capture, the slowest atom decay ever detected (Nature).

10. Spain

Share: 382.27, change in Share since 2017: -8.8%

A decline in government investment may have slowed Spain’s progress in scientific research, but it continues to stand firm among the top 10 countries in the physical sciences.

The physical sciences is the dominant subject of the country’s top three institutions – the Spanish National Research Council, the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, and the Autonomous University of Madrid..

In 2018, Spanish astronomers were part of an international team that discovered a planet orbiting Barnard’s star, one of the closest stars to the Sun. Published in Nature, the paper was mentioned by 870 Twitter users and 112 news outlets, according to Altmetric.

+Share, formerly referred to in the Nature Index as Fractional Count (FC), is a measure of a country’s contribution to articles in the 82 journals tracked by the index, calculated according to the proportion of its affiliated authors relative to total authors on articles.

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