The Australian

by Jill Rowbotham

Research publications by US scientists fell in the past 30 years as the Asia-Pacific nations, led by China, boosted their contribution. "The US is no longer the colossus of science, dominating the research landscape in its production of scientific papers," the latest Thomson Reuters Global Research Report: US says. US journal articles dropped from 40 per cent of its Web of Science index to account for 29 per cent. In roughly the same period, Asia-Pacific contributions rose from 13 per cent to 31 per cent.

But the US research impact measure is still about 40 per cent above world average, with Japan at about world average and the Asia-Pacific 20 per cent below.

Research and development investment in Asia exceeded that in the US in 2008, and Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, India and especially China had driven the "remarkable" rise in Asia-Pacific outputs.

The report warns the US has a "skewed investment in the biological and biomedical sciences", with federal funding in their favour up from 40 per cent to 50 per cent in the past 20 years while physical sciences and engineering have taken a back seat.

However, investment in the Asian "tiger" nations and China is shifting to life sciences, medicine and social sciences and these will be their most rapid growth area in the next decade.

While top US institutions, led by universities, are growing even stronger, the rest of the research base does not seem to be following.

The report asks whether a "more pervasive network of US institutions" is needed to support an "agile and innovative response" to the Asia-Pacific push. But Australian experts have defended the US.

Tim Turpin, a science and technology policy specialist at the University of Western Sydney, said China's increased output of papers was due largely to co-publication - with the US and others - and US research and development investments in China.

"In this way, the US is still keeping well up with the knowledge flow, even if comparatively they are publishing a lesser proportion," Professor Turpin, a contributor to the UNESCO Science Report 2010, said.

"Its challenge is to remain central to global science networks, which requires a strong science base at home institutions in order to capture international developments. Australia needs to maintain a strong science base to be also linked to these centres of knowledge concentration."

Sean Gallagher, chief operating officer of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a specialist in US higher education, said the paper had missed the commitment among US universities to interdisciplinary research. "They are undergoing a revolutionary transition to [it]," Dr Gallagher said.

Bob Williamson, Australian Academy of Science secretary for science policy, said medical research was set to remain strong in the US.

"The lesson for Australia is that we will benefit most if we focus on things we care about and are good at, such as renewable energy, astronomy, immunology and stem cell science," Professor Williamson said.