In April, thousands of people descended on the nation’s capital to take part in the first-ever “March For Science,” to protest the anti-science tenor of the Trump administration.
The science community’s frustration with the new administration is warranted. But a crisis has been building for more than a decade, for nonpartisan reasons. Over the past 15 years, the United States has slowly watched its global leadership in science stagnate. And while we’ve slowed down, China has developed its commitment to science at breakneck speed.
Consider this statistic, published last week in the journal JCI Insight: In 2000, China spent only 12 percent of what the United States did on biomedical research (adjusted for purchasing power). By 2015, it far surpassed all other countries except for the United States, spending 75 percent of what we do on biomedical research (adjusted for purchasing power). Other studies have found similar trends in scientific fields outside the biomedical arena.
This isn’t to suggest that the United States has lost its leadership role in scientific research. But at the rate China is investing in its scientists, the country seems poised to surpass U.S. research spending in the near future.
There are plenty of people who have rightfully denounced the Trump administration’s proposed draconian cuts to research, particularly to the National Institutes of Health. But the NIH’s budget flatlined following the height of the recession in 2008. And although we’ve seen modest increases in NIH spending in recent years, spending has actually declined after adjusting for inflation over the past decade.
And it’s not just spending; it’s publishing, too. The JCI Insight article found that Chinese researchers have consistently increased the number of articles they publish in high-ranking biomedical journals. The United States, on the other hand, has seen the number of articles published solely by American authors decline during the same time. This not only has the potential to affect the prestige of our research institutions; in the long run, it could also even affect their ability to compete as fundraisers.
To some extent, this shouldn’t be a shock. China makes up about a fifth of the world population; the United States is less than 5 percent. It’s no surprise that, given China’s incredibly rapid ascent into the developed world, its capabilities in science would rise at extraordinary rates as well.
Nonetheless, science fuels our economy. It’s the basis of our industry, investment and jobs. The United States currently serves as the unquestioned center of higher education in the world. What happens to our country when research institutions elsewhere — under authoritarian regimes such as China’s — start attracting the best and the brightest? What happens to our cities and local economies, which are already painfully strained by the shock of new competition from rapidly developing nations?
It’s not that we should root for China’s failure — or for failure in any other part of the world. Indeed, one of the more encouraging signs in science is that the number of articles that involved international collaboration has been on the rise in recent years.
Still, the administration would be wise to seriously reconsider its investment in research. This simply is not the time for the United States to give up on its commitment to science.