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Science & Technology

January 11, 2010
Volume 88, Number 2
pp. 35-37

China Ascendant

Measured by patent applications or journal articles, growth in chinese scientific output is stupendous

Sophie L. Rovner

View Enlarged Image Chemical Abstract Service
Rapid Diversification Chemistry-related patent applications published by the Chinese patent office in 2009 covered a multitude of fields, as shown by this "research landscape" map. The altitude of a given peak in the landscape represents the number of patents in that particular subject, while the proximity of any two peaks indicates how closely the two subjects are related. Just five years earlier, the analogous map of the research landscape had only one main peak, for pharmaceuticals and medicine.
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No matter how you slice it, China is on a scientific roll.

This past year, China became the world leader in terms of the number of chemistry patents published on an annual basis, according to Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society. And growth in publication of scholarly papers by the country's researchers far outpaces that of other nations, reports Thomson Reuters, a news and information company based in New York City.

"If China's research growth remains this rapid and substantial, European and North American institutions will want to be part of it," says Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters. "China no longer depends on links to traditional G-8 partners [Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.] to help its knowledge development. When Europe and the U.S. visit China they can only do so as equal partners."

Thomson Reuters released "Global Research Report: China" in November 2009 as the third installment in a series designed to inform policymakers about the changing landscape of the global research base. Reports on India and Brazil were released earlier in the year.

Those three nations, along with Russia, "are beginning to build on their vast resources and potential in becoming significant players in the world economy," according to the China report, which Adams coauthored. "As their influence becomes felt economically, so their impact also becomes apparent in research and innovation. That impact is changing the world map of research; it creates a new geography of science," with China conceivably at its center.

But assessing the strength of a nation's science is not a straightforward exercise. China "is a highly competitive society, if not cutthroat," says Zhigang Shuai, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Chemical Society and a chemistry professor at Tsinghua University, in Beijing. "Everybody is busy doing something. However, it has to be borne in mind that at this stage, China can only be regarded as a big country in chemistry, not yet a strong country. Highly original work is still rare," he adds. "Among the patents and papers, very, very few can be regarded as groundbreaking, or the best, or the first in their fields."

Nevertheless, Shuai expects growth will continue as individual Chinese researchers increase their average scientific output to the levels of productivity found in developed countries.

The extraordinary growth in Chinese chemical patenting and publishing is being driven by "the combination of economic development and awareness of the strategic importance of intellectual property protection," according to Sunny Wang, 2009 president of the Tri-State chapter of the Chinese-American Chemical Society.

The country is moving up the ladder of development from natural-asset-based industries that rely on inexpensive labor and raw materials toward R&D-based industries such as pharmaceuticals and microchips and information-driven businesses and services, adds Wang, who heads the patent search group at the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis in Bridgewater, N.J.

The Chinese government's insistence on "political stability and economic development above all other considerations has laid the foundation for long-lasting economic growth and sustained demand for research and innovation," Wang says.

China, whose economy is surpassed in size only by that of the U.S., is maintaining investment in its R&D sector at nearly 1% of gross domestic product, Thomson Reuters notes. Given the extraordinary expansion in the nation's GDP, that means the average annual growth rate in R&D spending was almost 18% for the decade ending in 2005, according to the company's China report. That's much higher than in nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, including the U.S., Japan, and many European countries.

The chemical enterprise is a beneficiary of that largesse. "The Chinese government appears to be investing a lot of money in chemical research in China, far more than Western governments are," says Matthew Toussant, senior vice president of editorial operations at CAS.

That investment could generate a huge return for the country. "Chemistry inventions, unlike almost any other invention, can be very lucrative," Toussant explains. "You can manufacture a consumer good like a cell phone," and other manufacturers can create a similar product to compete with it. But a patent on a molecule—such as a compound that treats a disease in a unique way—creates a period of protection during which no one else can sell the molecule for that particular purpose. And for that period, Toussant says, the inventor "can charge whatever the market will bear."

China is also investing in human resources, in part by welcoming its expats back home. Over the past decade or so, "a large number of well-trained scientists have been coming back from almost every leading group in North America, Japan, and Europe," Shuai says.

The nation also is benefiting from its emphasis on learning. "In Chinese traditional culture, education is in the center of our value system," Shuai notes. "Kids go to extra school in the evening and on weekends to learn math, music, and English instead of watching TV."

The number of students studying in Chinese universities has more than quadrupled in the past decade, he adds. And as those students have moved out into the work world, they have gotten busy, as evidenced by the explosion in the nation's patenting activity.

A significant fraction of that activity involves chemicals. "Chemical patents are a critical component to many industrial processes and scientific realms, including medicine and natural products," Toussant says. "In fact, on average, 35% of new patent invention applications globally involve chemical substances."

CAS has been mining its databases to track "the phenomenal growth of patent documents in the last decade," says Vice President of Marketing Christine McCue. The number of chemistry-related patent applications published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) grew 240% in that time, and those published by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) grew 140%. But the number of chemistry-related patent applications published by the patent office in the People's Republic of China—known as the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO)—increased by more than 1,600% during that same period.

Altogether, "the pace of growth in applications being disclosed in China is a magnitude greater than in every other developed area of the world," Toussant says.

As a result, the number of chemistry-related applications published on a monthly basis by China's patent office surpassed the PTO in 2005, WIPO in 2006, and Japan's patent office in 2008, CAS reports.

Last year was the first in which China recorded an entire year as the number one producer of chemical patents, and CAS projects that China will maintain its number one position for the foreseeable future. Totals for the year stood at about 67,000 for China, 55,000 for WIPO, 52,000 for Japan, and 41,000 for the U.S.

"This information is attention-getting," McCue observes.

For years, chemistry-related patent invention applications published by SIPO primarily concerned traditional pharmaceutical research, McCue notes.

But beginning about five years ago, Chinese patenting activity revealed diversification into several other chemistry-related fields, including genetic engineering, advanced materials such as ceramics, metals and alloys, and petroleum oil engineering.

Data gathered from the CAS Registry show that these efforts have generated tremendous growth in the creation of new compounds. The number of new chemicals disclosed in Chinese patent applications surged 2,400% to about 71,000 between 1999 and 2009, Toussant notes. References to all compounds—including existing substances, often in the context of describing new uses for those substances—were 6,600% higher in 2009 than in 1998. "This tells you that China is finding new uses for chemical substances that were already disclosed by others and is also creating new compounds," he says.

Nearly 70% of the chemistry-related patent applications published by SIPO are for inventors within China, "which indicates that Chinese scientists now recognize the importance of monetizing research discoveries," McCue says. Inventors in Japan represent the next largest set of authors of Chinese chemical patents, followed by those in South Korea and the U.S.

The growth trends revealed by patent data are reflected in China's journal article publication rates. Researchers in the People's Republic of China and Hong Kong were primary authors of just 0.8% of the articles published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1998, according to data obtained via CAS's SciFinder, a research tool for scientific information in journal and patent literature from around the world. A decade later, however, the share of authors in China had grown to 4.6%.

China's output of journal articles in science as a whole expanded dramatically beginning around the mid-1990s, "commencing a steep upward trajectory that has only increased in recent years," according to the Thomson Reuters report. The findings are drawn from company databases that include data on articles from some 10,500 journals published worldwide.

Although countries including the U.S., Germany, and Japan have enjoyed only modest growth in publications over the past 10 years, the output of papers with at least one author in China—defined as the People's Republic of China and Hong Kong—surged more than fourfold. Researchers in China published just 20,000 papers in 1998 compared with more than 112,000 a decade later. During that same period, U.S. output rose from 265,000 papers to 340,000, an increase of less than 30%. "By the measure of annual output, China surpassed Japan, the U.K., and Germany in 2006 and now stands second only to the U.S.A.," according to the report.

China's largest share of world publications is in materials science, with papers by its authors accounting for 20.8% of output over the five years ending in 2008. That figure compares with a 12.2% share during the prior five-year period.

The country's second-largest share of world publications is in chemistry, a field in which its authors helped produce 16.9% of papers in 2004–08 versus 9.3% in 1999–2003.

"China no longer depends on links to traditional G-8 partners to help its knowledge development."

The "investment in materials and related physical sciences and technology will provide China with a strong innovation platform" to modernize its heavy industry and primary manufacturing, the report states.

On a more detailed basis, the share of papers published worldwide during the past five years with at least one author in China reached 31.7% in crystallography, 31.2% in metallurgy and metallurgical engineering, 19.9% in composites, 19.3% in polymer science, and 16.9% in multidisciplinary chemistry, according to Thomson Reuters.

Authors in China are most likely to collaborate with authors in the U.S. Over the past five years, such pairings accounted for 8.9% of papers with an author in China. Collaborations with second-place Japan represented 3.0% of such papers, whereas those with Germany, which is in third place, accounted for 2.3%.

Authors in China are also reaching out to collaborators in nations including South Korea, Singapore, and Australia. "Asia-Pacific nations are entirely happy to work with another's excellent research bases now," the report states. That means that when researchers in the U.S. and Europe approach their counterparts in China for possible collaboration, "the question that may be put to them is what they can bring to the partnership to make it worth China's while to share."

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