Why China isn’t likely to overtake the U.S. in science anytime soon

October 17, 2013

Lawmakers in Congress haven't been kind to scientific research of late. Budget pressures and sequestration cuts have put America's R&D spending on pace to shrink in the years ahead.

On top of that, the recent federal government shutdown wreaked havoc on a variety of clinical studies and other U.S. research endeavors, affecting scientists studying everything from Antarctica's ice sheets to Alzheimer's.

Trends like these help explain why some experts think China could soon "overtake" the United States as the world's leading scientific superpower. After all, the Chinese government has poured staggering sums into research, pledging $2 trillion over the next five years. By 2020, the country will devote nearly as large a share of its economy to R&D, both public and private, as the U.S. does:

(Information Technology and Innovation Foundation)
(Information Technology and Innovation Foundation)

But is China really about to pass the United States in science? Probably not. At least, probably not within the next decade.

Gwynn Guilford has a great report in Quartz today noting that the Chinese don't seem to be getting nearly as much value as one might think from all that R&D spending. Among other things, she points to a new policy brief (pdf) from Guy de Jonquières of the European Centre for International Political Economy that makes a few key points:

— China isn't getting as much value for its R&D. In 2012, China spent $300 billion on R&D, more than Japan and Germany combined and second only to the United States. But that's not as impressive as it sounds.

"R&D spending is, at best, no more than a crude measure of input: it says nothing about output," notes de Jonquières "A 2008 study by Duke University found that engineering degrees in the U.S. were generally of a higher standard than those in China. ... Indeed, calculations by Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, find that China has not been moving closer to the 'technology frontier' — defined as the performance level achieved by the world's most advanced and efficient economies — but slipping steadily further away from it."

Catching up, but not quite there yet. (China Daily)
Catching up, but not quite there yet. (China Daily)

— Too many of China's patents are low-quality. Although China now puts out roughly as many patents as the United States does, that's also a misleading indicator. U.S. patents tend to be much higher quality on the whole.

"In 2011, fewer than a third of applications to China's patent office were classified as 'innovation' patents, and these accounted for only one tenth of all patents granted between 1985 and 2010," Jonquières writes. "The remainder were lower-quality design and utility-model patents that need to meet far less demanding standards — so much so that some Chinese experts have said that they risk bringing the whole patent system into disrepute."

— Churning out journals doesn't always lead to better research. China churns out more scientific papers than anyone but the United States — and has its sights set on the top spot. But here again, the quality is uneven.

"The ultimate say in content falls not to peer scientists but to the Communist Party secretary of the Chinese institution sponsoring the journal," reports Guilford. "Intense competition to achieve quick results and thereby improve personal promotion prospects has led to widespread academic plagiarism." While China is putting out nearly as many journal articles as the United States, the latter's still get cited far, far more often, the UK Royal Society found.

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That said, none of the above is great news — not even for the United States. Scientific research isn't typically a zero-sum game. New discoveries can have positive spillover benefits for the entire world. If Chinese scientists advance our understanding of how to fight cancer, that's good for everyone. If China's inventions are mostly low-quality, that's a loss.

China's science struggles also don't mean that Congress can cut back on all types of R&D without consequences. The federal government currently funds 60 percent of all basic scientific research in the United States. Economists tend to agree that private companies under-invest in basic research, since it's hard for one firm to reap the full benefits from those discoveries. (Experts tend to be more divided, however, on how useful other types of R&D programs are.)

What's more, frequent lapses in funding seem particularly pointless and disruptive. As Darren Samuelsohn reports today, the recent government shutdown will cause damage that could linger for years. Grant applications have been delayed. Flu researchers are overwhelmed with backlogs. Clinical trials may have lost subjects. Some scientists in Antarctica may have lost a year's worth of work.

Still, despite Congress' best efforts, the United States isn't likely to lose its spot as the leading scientific superpower anytime soon.

Further reading: The coming R&D crash

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Casey Capachi · October 17, 2013