China’s meteoric rise to scientific prominence is continuing unabated. For the first time ever, China is now publishing more scientific articles than the United States, firmly staking its claim to being the world leader in research and development (R&D).
This overshadowing has been a long time coming. The statistics formed part of the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) biennial Science & Engineering Indicators report and, depending on how you look at it, shows that China is on the verge of becoming – or already has become – the planet’s scientific superpower.
Previous reports from the NSF have been tracking China's rise in science and technology for a while now. In 2010 the agency said that they saw “no end in sight” for their scientific investments, while in 2012 the report talked about the creation of an Asian science zone, with China sitting firmly at the center.
The latest news, therefore, might not come as that much of a surprise to many, but China’s rapid rise over the last two decades has been something to behold. The amount of money that China invests in R&D has increased by 18 percent annually, while the number of people graduating with a science bachelor’s degree has risen from 359,000 to 1.65 million between 2000 and 2014, compared to 483,000 to 742,000 in the US.
The overall message of the latest report is a pretty simple one: “The US global share of [science and technology] activities is declining as other nations – especially China – continue to rise,” NSF officials said on the release of the report.
But it is important to note that this does not mean that the US has lost its importance or influence in scientific research. While China might now be producing more research overall, the US still wracks up more citations, behind only Sweden and Switzerland, and above the EU, which is followed by China. This could reflect that the work being carried out in the US involves more fundamental questions.
When it comes to how much money is invested yearly in research and development, the United States is still on top. In 2015, for example, the US invested $500 billion, accounting for 26 percent of the global total, compared to China’s $400 billion. But while that figure has flatlined in the US over recent years, in China it has been growing, and will likely surpass the US in the not too distant future.
What this means depends really on who you are asking. The pursuit of knowledge in general benefits all of us, but many in the US might be a little worried about the rise of China. The military, for example, is warning that the nation’s development of weapons and satellites could become a threat, while economists are concerned that one of the major pillars of the US’ economy is being rapidly eroded.