Covid travel bans ‘push intra-Asian research collaboration’

Countries are choosing regional partners over Western giants, Nature Index data show

March 24, 2021
Source: iStock

Tensions between the East and West – exacerbated by geopolitics, visa disputes and Covid travel bans – may have had an unintended positive effect on Asia-based research, as countries in this region increasingly look to each other for growth and partnerships.

The Asia-Pacific is becoming a growing player in international research. Its share of the worldwide Nature Index rose from 27 per cent in 2015 to 34 per cent in 2020, according to data released this month. However, 98 per cent of that increase was attributed to one country: China. That means that, without China, the region may have stayed flat or even declined slightly.

China itself performed remarkably this year, according to the Nature Index 2021 Asia-Pacific. It is home to eight of the top 10 Asia-Pacific institutions – joined by Japan and Singapore – and 29 of the 30 Asia-Pacific institutions with the highest level of growth in the Nature Index Share. 

It is doing particularly well in earth and environmental sciences, where it dominates with nine of the top 10 institutions. The only non-Chinese school on that list is the University of Tokyo. 

China’s success, undoubtably driven by generous and growing state R&D funding, has made it “the region’s scientific growth engine, supplanting Japan”, writes Catherine Armitage, chief editor of Nature Index

“The inability to jump on a plane for a lab visit or conference may add impetus to a related big idea: a more interconnected scientific research system in the Asia-Pacific region,” she says.

However, she warns that political tensions – for example, between China and Australia – could have a broader destabilising effect. For now, the collaboration score between those two countries is growing, but that is no prediction for the future.

“Any cooling of the scientific relationship is bad news for the Asia-Pacific region’s entire research effort, because China is its engine for growth,” she writes

Japan, South Korea, Singapore and India all saw their collaborations with China jump over the past five years, but stall with the West.

Singapore is one good example. From 2015 to 2020, its research ties grew in China but shrank in the US, according to a five-year comparison of Nature Index’s Collaboration Scores.

The US managed to maintain collaboration levels with Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. However, China actually increased these collaborations.

Similarly, Germany maintained ties with Japan, Australia, India and Singapore; but did not see the same growth in collaborations that China did. One outlier is that German-Korean cooperation stayed strong. 

The UK grew its collaboration with China by 115 per cent from 2015 to 2020. However, it only maintained its collaborations with Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and Singapore, which were also increasingly turning to China.

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