China is performing "outstanding" research in a number of emerging scientific topics, putting the country's output on a par with the UK but still behind the US. That is the conclusion of a new study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the scientific data company Clarivate Analytics. The Research Fronts 2016 annual report identifies 100 "hot" and 80 "emerging" research areas based on citation analysis of papers published in 2015.

The research areas – divided in various fields of science – reflect global interest in specific topics that have resulted in "core" journal articles. These articles are defined by an algorithm that takes into account, among other things, the time of publication and how frequently an article is cited by other papers in the same area. In physics, for instance, the hottest research pursuits last year included the detection of dark matter and experiments that measure neutrino oscillations. Research into properties and applications of black phosphorus – a 2D material also called phosphorene because of its similarity to graphene – was also identified. The study of topological materials called Weyl semimetals was also named as a hot topic in physics.

China has a significant gap with the US, and fierce competition with the UK
Research Fronts 2016

Six countries – China, France, Germany, Japan, UK and US – made the greatest contributions in the 180 research areas, according to the report. The US retained its leadership, with its researchers publishing core papers in 152 of the 180 areas, ranging from the hunt for dark matter to the health impact of electronic cigarettes. The UK, meanwhile, contributed core papers in 90 research topics, covering more areas than China's 68. However, China had top-cited papers among the core papers in 30 research areas, which is more than twice that of the UK. "China has a significant gap with the US, and fierce competition with the UK," the report says, adding it was likely that China would soon overtake the UK.

Spending growth

One factor in China's success is that it invested more than $400bn on R&D last year, second only to the US. In 2015, more than 2% of China's gross domestic product (GDP), adjusted by purchasing power, was spent on research. The rapid increase of government investment has spurred the construction of many large facilities, including the world's largest single-aperture telescope, the longest quantum-communication network and the first quantum satellite. CAS president Chunli Bai says that the Chinese government is expected to support many of the identified areas over the next five to 10 years. "These breakthroughs may change the future pattern of the world," says Bai.