China Is About To Usurp America As The World Leader In Science


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Slow and steady wins the race? Not according to China. danielo/Shutterstock

No matter what China does these days, it does it extremely quickly. From building military bases in the middle of the sea out of literally nothing to building wind and solar farms like no tomorrow, they are really going full steam ahead. Make no mistake, China wants to be a world leader in pretty much everything.

This also appears to include science and technology (S&T). Back in 2014, several reports pointed out that Chinese S&T spending was rising dramatically compared to Japan, the US, and the EU. Back in 2008, it trumped Japan, and by 2013, it eclipsed the EU. At its current rate, China will outspend the US by 2019.


Now, as noted in a new op-ed in the journal JCI Insight, it looks like this projection is set to come true. Although it points out that America still holds the top spot, in a few years it will drop to second amidst China’s spending surge.

Back in 2000, China spent 12 percent of what the US spent on S&T; in 2015, China was spending 75 percent of what the US spent. Funding in almost every other major country has stagnated, and the US is showing particularly worrying signs.

It doesn’t help that President Trump is so keen on making historic and draconian cuts to federal science programs across the board. Although Congress is showing resistance to these cuts on both sides of the aisle and is instead giving boosts to science funding, the overall trend is still downwards.

Biomedical research is one of China's strong points. Eremin Sergey/Shutterstock

A damning report a few months back highlighted that the US government’s share of science funding has hit a record low. Back in the 1960s, the share of federal scientific funding was around 70 percent, but by 2004, this had dropped to 61 percent. In 2013, it fell to 50 percent, and it’s now just under that.


In contrast, funding from the private sector and philanthropists has seen a marked increase during the same time period, particularly over the last decade, but it’s not enough to stymy the overall decline. The message currently being broadcast from the US is that, as a country, it’s less interested in doing science and happy to see it being privatized on an extraordinary scale.

China, on the other hand, is rushing forwards towards a science-heavy future. Its spending plans call for colossal increases in S&T spending, and it’s even signing agreements with individual US states to work on developing low-carbon technology schemes.

Looking through six top-tier scientific journals, including Nature, Science, Cell, and the Lancet, the team from the University of Michigan also found that although America is still reporting the greatest number of scientific discoveries – particularly in biomedical fields – China will soon challenge them for first place too.

In the year 2000, China was ranked 14th in this regard. As of 2015, it’s 4th – a meteoric rise by any standard.


The evolution of the Paris agreement suggests that the future will be collaborative and less competitive when it comes to science. China is certainly happy to shake a lot of hands in this sense, as has been made clear by its independent climate deal with California.

In fact, in this new study, the team note that “the percentage of basic and clinical manuscripts in high-ranking journals that include international collaborations increased from 26 percent of total publications in 2000 to 47 percent in 2015.” 

Science clearly knows no boundaries, but for as long as a bellicose isolationist remains in the White House, America’s prospects look to be fairly grim.

America First? Not for long. Mike Demidov/Shutterstock


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