China has been on a quest for the past decade to establish a strong scientific presence for itself. Through a series of largely government-backed initiatives, most notable among them being the ambitious aim of becoming a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI) in just over a decade, by the 2030 target year.
“The US global share of [science and technology] activities is declining as other nations—especially China—continue to rise.”
The latest sign of the country’s continuous climb is a recently released report explaining that China at present is publishing more scientific articles than any other country in the world, even surpassing the US. This could be a sign that the country will soon add Global Leader in Research & Development (R&D) to its list of aims.
The US National Science Foundation (NSF) collected and compiled the data used in the report, entitled Science and Engineering Indicators, which was released on January 18th. At the time of the report’s release, NSF officials offered a very clear interpretation of the meaning of the data: “The US global share of [science and technology] activities is declining as other nations—especially China—continue to rise.”
China’s Strategic Climb in the Past Decade
The concern, in fact, has been growing for some time, as reflected in statements in the 2010 annual report that “China is achieving a dramatic amount of synergy…attracting scientists from all over the world,” and the 2012 annual reports mentioning “the beginning of an Asian science zone,” with China at the helm. The country’s revolution in education is also behind China’s rise: in terms of the numbers of people obtaining a science bachelor’s degree, there was a rise from 359,000 to 1.65 million between 2000 and 2014, with only an increase of 483,000 to 742,000 in the US in the same period.
There are some who feel that the report is more of a reflection of the US's need to acknowledge shifts in the scientific landscape and act accordingly. “The US continues to be the global leader in science and technology, but the world is changing,” shared Maria Zuber, a geophysicist and Vice President for Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, adding bluntly, “We can’t be asleep at the wheel.” She is a member of the National Science Board, the governing body for the NSF. According to her analysis, although the US is continuing to attract and support a powerhouse of scientific researchers, that in terms of activity and output there is a decline that the country must face.
Other indicators show a different picture, with one figure indicating that the US still surpasses China in the category of research citations, with only Sweden and Switzerland producing more. Ultimately, these numbers could be a reflection of the nature of the studies carried out as well as the research questions supporting the work.
Though the information is not completely conclusive, it can be used as a valuable indicator of the current environment: “A nation’s innovation capacity is one of the main drivers of productivity growth and…prosperity,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
Despite the numbers, as well as the mixed interpretations they are receiving, one thing remains true: this is the kind of healthy competition that drives innovation.