As the Cold War emerged in the West following World War II, basic scientific research became a high priority for the United States. The US government established the Department of Defence and National Science Foundation, and research spending increased afterwards from $265 million in 1953, to approximately $35 billion by 2015 – a 15-fold increase when adjusted for inflation. According to an index of data compiled by the journal Nature, the investment has paid off well.
For the last three years, the Nature Index has measured how frequently countries and institutions contribute to 82 of the most prestigious publications in the natural sciences. The 2017 data was released in June, showing that the US continues to lead all other countries by a wide margin, as it has for the better part of a century. China, Germany and the UK follow, but these three countries combined still contributed less to science than the US last year.
However, the data also reveals that the US is quickly losing ground. Contributions to major scientific journals by American scientists have steadily declined over the past few years, while contributions from China are on the rise. If these two opposing trends are sustained, China’s scientific output will eclipse that of the US within seven years.
This trend is not surprising to some. The US National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine issued a joint report back in 2007 that warned of an eroding US influence in science and technology in the wake of China’s economic growth.
A similar, but more emphatic, report followed in 2010 with the resonant conclusion that, because of their waning influence on the frontiers of science, “the United States appears to be on a course that will lead to a declining, not growing, standard of living for our children and grandchildren”. The authors recommended 20 specific investments in STEM education and research funding that would stimulate technological advancement and avert this scenario.
If the United States has failed to heed these recommendations, then clearly China has not.
According to a 2014 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), there are four major factors that are driving China’s rapid ascent into scientific preeminence.
First, the nation has a large population, which means that it has an enormous capacity for labour growth in science and engineering occupations. Although the proportion of workers in the sciences and engineering is lower in China than it is in the US, the sheer numbers are comparable because China’s population is four times larger.
Second, the number of Chinese scientists and engineers is growing. China has made a significant investment in expanding education since 1999 and consequently doubled the number of higher education institutions in the decade that followed.
Along with the increase in schools, there is also an increase in Chinese students studying STEM. In 2010, 44% of higher education students in China were majoring in science or engineering, compared with only 16% in the US. This is partly driven by economics. In China, scientists earn more than doctors and lawyers. Meanwhile, the opposite is true in the US, where passionate scientists are relegated to a state of relative poverty in comparison to professionals in other occupations that require a similar amount of training.
Third, China has aggressively recruited notable senior-level Chinese scientists from abroad to return to their homeland. In 2008, the Chinese government launched The Recruitment Program of Global Experts as part of the Thousand Talents Program, which was designed to pry outstanding Chinese academics away from their positions at high-tier foreign research institutions. Lured by prestigious programs such as this, and the lucrative salaries and start-up packages that come with it, more than a few Chinese-American scientists have left the departments they once chaired at elite universities in the US and taken their talents to China.
Finally, China is increasing investments in science. In 1991, China put 0.7% of its gross domestic product into research and development, and by 2016 they tripled that investment to 2.1%. Meanwhile in the US, gross expenditures in research and development (GERD) have wavered somewhere between 2.4% and 2.9% since 1991. Although China still falls behind in this category, it is catching up very quickly.
The rise of China means certain change, but that does not necessitate the collapse of the US or any other nation, according to the study’s authors.
“Today’s world of science may be characterised as having multiple centres of scientific excellence across the globe,” they conclude. “When science in China and other fast-developing countries improves, it greatly expands the scale of science and thus speeds up scientific discoveries, benefitting the entire human race.”