Despite their focus on national economic competitiveness, the nanotechnology research initiatives now funded by more than 60 countries have become increasingly collaborative, with nearly a quarter of all papers being co-written by researchers across borders.
Researchers from the two leading producers of nanotechnology papers – China and the United States – have become each nation's most frequent international co-authors.
The findings were part of a new study of nanotechnology publishing conducted by researchers for the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU (CNS-ASU), which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
In a "Comment" piece in Nature this month, “Follow the Money,” CNS-ASU researchers Philip Shapira, professor of public policy and innovation at Georgia Tech and the UK’s Manchester University, respectively, and Jue Wang, assistant professor at Florida International University, described their use of data-mining techniques to assemble a database of nanotechnology publications that allows them to make comparisons across countries. They have analyzed funding acknowledgements reported by authors to link research output with its funding source for the leading international sponsors of nanotechnology.
The study is part of CNS-ASU’s research program in nanotechnology research and innovation, led by Shapira.
"Despite 10 years of emphasis by governments on national nanotechnology initiatives, we find that patterns of nanotechnology research collaboration and funding transcend country boundaries," Shapira said. "For example, we found that researchers in the United States and China have developed a relatively high level of collaboration in nanotechnology research. Each country is the other's leading collaborator in nanotechnology research and development."
Though China and the United States now publish roughly the same number of nanotechnology papers, the United States retains a lead in the quality of publications – as measured by the number of early citations.
Sparked by programs such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in the United States, leading industrial nations have launched nanotechnology research programs that invested more than $8 billion in public funds in 2008 alone. China, Germany, Japan and Korea are among the many countries that have launched major governmental programs to develop their national nanotechnology capabilities as part of efforts to boost future economic growth.
"There is widespread anticipation that nanotechnology will be a critical component in addressing global challenges in such areas as energy, environment, health care, security and sustainability," Shapira said. "At the same time, nanotechnology may be a key driver in the next wave of technology-led economic growth and investment. Governments around the world are hoping that their often massive investments in nanotechnology research and development will lead not only to economic, but also to significant societal returns."
Shapira and Wang analyzed more than 91,000 papers published worldwide between August 2008 and July 2009. They found that, although researchers from 152 nations were represented in the survey, just 15 countries produced 90 percent of the papers. Papers written by researchers from more than one nation were assigned to more than one country. The top four countries by author affiliation were the United States (23 percent), China (22 percent), Germany (8 percent) and Japan (8 percent).
The study also analyzed the funding sources cited in a sub-set of 61,300 papers that were supported by grants. The National Natural Science Foundation of China was the top funder, with more than 10,200 publications representing 16.7 percent of all sponsored papers. Second was the U.S. National Science Foundation with 6,700 publications. Rounding out the top five were the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the European Union’s R&D programs, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – which includes the National Institutes of Health.
About 3 percent of United States’ papers reported co-funding from the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation, while a similar proportion of Chinese papers report co-funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.
"Although these numbers are still low relative to purely nationally-funded papers, they signal a significant trend as China has taken over from European countries as America's leading international collaborator by volume in nanotechnology research," Shapira said. "China's scientific relationships do, of course, extend beyond the United States, and China has emerged as the hub for nanotechnology research collaboration in Asia."
The study also found that sponsors concentrating their funding in fewer institutions had lower research impact as measured by early citation counts.
"Our starting hypothesis is that when groups from multiple institutions vie for funding, there is increased competition, review processes are less partial, and there are more opportunities to select the most improving projects," Shapira said.
With increasing budget pressures, growth in nanotechnology funding appears unlikely. How should countries invest their limited funding for greatest benefit?
"One way would be to foster more high-quality international collaborations, perhaps by opening funding competitions to international researchers and by offering travel and mobility awards for domestic researchers to increase alliances with colleagues in other countries," the researchers suggested in their paper.