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The implications of Asia’s scientific rise

A previous article in this newsletter (issue 3, December 2012) demonstrated how selected Asian governments have come to view science as integral to ec

Publishing date
15 February 2014

Related publication: 'The World innovation landscape: Asia rising?'

A previous article in this newsletter (issue 3, December 2012) demonstrated how selected Asian governments have come to view science as integral to economic growth, and have consequently taken steps to develop their science infrastructures. This holds most for China, but is also true for Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. The rise of new emerging science powerhouses in Asia provokes the question of what the impact will be on science. In particular, does a shift of scientific power to Asia mean that the flows of scientific talent from east to west will dry up, and are Asian scientific centres new cooperation partners in science for the west?

Shifting patterns in international mobility of students and scholars

The rise of Asia’s scientific power has provoked western concern that the flow of foreign talent from Asia will slow. United States universities in particular import much of their scientific talent from abroad, particularly from Asia, and are worried about continuing to be able to fill their research centres with imported brains. This concern, however, is not justified by the data. Overall, the evidence shows that the international mobility of (Asian) scientific talent continues to increase.

Most of the post-2002 increase in US natural sciences and engineering (NS&E) doctorate production reflects degrees awarded to foreigners. Foreign nationals have earned more than half of US NS&E doctorates since 2006. The China-US flow is by far the most important. China’s share of the PhD degrees awarded by US institutions to foreigners continues to grow, being almost one third of all 'foreign' PhDs in the US in 2007 (Table 1). India's share is 12 percent. South Korea's share is 10 percent of all foreign NS&E PhDs awarded in the US. 

The rise in Asia's own production of PhDs (as the previous article in this newsletter documented) thus does not seem to be stopping the flows of students from Asia to the US for PhD training. Similar trends are also observed in the flow of Asian post-doctorate students to the US (Veugelers, 2010; Stephan, 2012). On the contrary, the rise in own tertiary degrees awarded in Asia seems to have provided an even bigger and better pool of talent for US PhD programmes.

This evidence suggests that Asian countries are building their science and technology capacity in natural sciences and engineering by sending their best students to the best training ground in the world – the US – in the hope of bringing them home once they have acquired state-of-the-art scientific knowledge. But these return rates do not yet show up in the data.

Table 1 does not show high return rates of students after they have obtained a PhD degree in the US. On the contrary, Asian stay rates remain very high, significantly higher than EU stay rates. Chinese and Indian PhD students record the highest stay rates, and this has only marginally decreased over time. South Korean students have a higher probability of returning after their PhD compared to other Asian countries, but this (immediate) return rate has also declined over time. The increase in Asia’s own scientific capability therefore does not seem to have led to a greater propensity of Asian PhDs to return from the US, certainly not immediately upon graduation. Return rates at later stages of the researcher’s career may be on the rise, but there are no systematic statistics on this (Stephan, 2012).

Table 1:

All non-US recipients of US PhDs by home country

All fields;


Share of total

Plans to stay (%)



























Source:  NSF, S&E 2008/2010

The presence of foreign PhD students in the EU is less well systematically recorded. The imperfect evidence shows that the PhD student populations of EU countries have fewer foreigners compared to the US, and the geographic sources of foreign PhD students are different, with a less strong Asian presence, and geographic, cultural and historical links being more important[1].

Shifting international scientific collaboration towards Asian partners?

Does the rise of new emerging science powerhouses in Asia provide new cooperation partners for scientists in the US and Europe?

Table 2 shows trends in scientific collaboration with China, South Korea and Taiwan. The biggest partner for all three countries is not surprisingly the US. There is also more co-publishing by Chinese, South Korean and Taiwanese researchers with other Asian countries. For South Korea, Japan and China are the most important country partners for international scientific collaboration, after the US. While the US and Japan are decreasing in share, China is a fast riser as a partner for Korea. European countries are low and even decreasing in terms of their research collaboration with Korea.  


That the US comes as first partner should be no surprise, given that it is also the world's number one producer of science. To account for unequal country sizes, an International Collaboration Index is calculated in Table 3. A number greater than 1 represent a more significant than expected co-publication pairing, with expectations based on the partnering country's share of total world scientific publications.


An index of international collaboration corrects for the effects of unequal size of countries’ research establishments.   Values above “1” indicate higher-than-expected collaborations

Table 3 shows a marked difference between the US and EU countries (France, Germany, UK) in scientific collaboration with rising Asian scientific powerhouses. US collaboration with the Asian rising stars (China, South Korea, Taiwan) is not only important in absolute terms (see Table 2), but it also more significant than expected given the partners scientific size (Table 3), reflecting an intense collaboration between these pairs of countries, although the intensity of collaboration has somewhat decreased over time. Also, with Taiwan and China, US international collaboration is above par. The high flow of Asian students to the US for their training is certainly correlated with this more intense international collaboration between host and home economies. This contrasts markedly with European countries. European countries, lacking the same intensity of flows of Asian students, are also below par in their scientific collaborations with China, South Korea and Taiwan. The increasing European integration with the European Research Area stimulating intra-EU cooperation, may have diverted attention from extra-EU collaboration (Veugelers, 2010).

While China’s bilateral scientific relationship with European countries may not yet be on par with its rising scientific power, its relationships with other Asian countries are above par, illustrating intense regional intra-Asian collaboration. Above-par levels of Chinese collaboration can be found with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. An exception is China and India, which have a rate of collaboration that is below par and which has diminished noticeably. Chinese-Russian collaboration is also below par.

South Korea’s international collaboration with other Asian counties is above par. It is also well connected to India and Russia. Korean collaboration with European countries is underdeveloped.

Concluding remarks

With the rise of new emerging scientific powerhouses in Asia, the question arises of what the impact will be on science and economic growth. In this contribution, we have only looked at the impact of the globalisation of science on the scientific process itself. Although fears are mounting in the US that their open model for building scientific power is ending, for the moment the US-Asia connection remains strong, as reflected in the flow of scientific talent and international scientific collaboration. With its more inward-looking perspective, Europe seems to have been bypassed by the Asian scientific rise. At least, the below-par European-Asian scientific collaboration seems to show this. The rise of Asian countries as scientific powerhouses is accompanied by increasing intra-Asian research collaboration.  

But the impact of this shifting geography in science will extend beyond science. It will also have implications on the geography of innovation, as the innovative capacity of Asian scientific powerhouses will grow, and as large innovating companies from the west start to locate their research and development activities closer to the new Asian scientific and economic powerhouses. The changing geography of innovation is discussed in more detail in Veugelers (2013). 


Stephan, P. (2012) How economics shapes science, Harvard University Press

Veugelers, R. (2010) 'Towards a multipolar science world: trends and impact', Scientometrics 82, 2: 439-456.

Veugelers, R. (2011) 'A G2 for science?' Policy Brief 2011/03, Bruegel

Veugelers, R. (2013) 'The world innovation landscape: Asia rising?' Policy Contribution 2013/02, Bruegel

[1] The pattern of foreign PhDs in the EU is completely different from the US. First, there are fewer foreign PhDs in the EU: Other-EU represent 5% of doctoral candidates, Extra-EU represent 17%, spread between Asia, Africa and Latin America. Major destination country is UK (for Asia), France (for Africa) and Spain (for LA):Source: IPTS 2007.

About the authors

  • Reinhilde Veugelers

    Prof Dr. Reinhilde Veugelers is a full professor at KULeuven (BE) at the Department of Management, Strategy and Innovation.  She is a Senior Fellow at Bruegel since 2009.  She is also a CEPR Research Fellow, a member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and of the Academia Europeana. From 2004-2008, she was on academic leave, as advisor at the European Commission (BEPA Bureau of European Policy Analysis).  She served on the ERC Scientific Council from 2012-2018 and on the RISE Expert Group advising the commissioner for Research.  She is a member of VARIO, the expert group advising the Flemish minister for Innovation.    She is currently a member of the Board of Reviewing Editors of the journal Science and a co-PI on the Science of Science Funding Initiative at NBER.

    With her research concentrated in the fields of industrial organisation, international economics and strategy, innovation and science, she has authored numerous well cited publications in leading international journals.  Specific recent topics include novelty in technology development,  international technology transfers through MNEs, global innovation value chains, young innovative companies, innovation for climate change,  industry science links and their impact on firm’s innovative productivity, evaluation of research & innovation policy,  explaining scientific productivity,  researchers’ international mobility,  novel scientific research.


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