The National Science Foundation and the National Science Board have just released their biennial "Science & Engineering Indicators," a voluminous document describing the state of American technology. There are facts and figures on research and development, innovation and engineers. But the report's main conclusion lies elsewhere: China has become — or is on the verge of becoming — a scientific and technical superpower.
We should have expected nothing less. After all, science and technology constitute the knowledge base for economically advanced societies and military powers, and China aspires to become the world leader in both. Still, the actual numbers are breathtaking for the speed with which they've been realized.
Remember that a quarter-century ago, China's economy was tiny and its high-tech sector barely existed. Since then, here's what's happened, according to the "Indicators" report:
● China has become the second- largest R&D spender, accounting for 21 percent of the world total of nearly $2 trillion in 2015. Only the United States, at 26 percent, ranks higher, but if present growth rates continue, China will soon become the biggest spender. From 2000 to 2015, Chinese R&D outlays grew an average of 18 percent annually, more than four times faster than the U.S. rate of 4 percent.
● There has been an explosion of technical papers by Chinese teams. Although the United States and the European Union each produce more studies on biomedical subjects, China leads in engineering studies. American papers tend to be cited more often than the Chinese papers , suggesting that they involve more fundamental research questions, but China is catching up.
● China has dramatically expanded its technical workforce. From 2000 to 2014, the annual number of science and engineering bachelor's degree graduates went from about 359,000 to 1.65 million. Over the same period, the comparable number of U.S. graduates went from about 483,000 to 742,000.
Not only has Chinese technology expanded. It has also gotten more ambitious. Much of China's high-tech production once consisted of assembling sophisticated components made elsewhere. Now, says the report, it's venturing into demanding areas "such as supercomputers and smaller jetliners."
Of course, there are qualifications. China still lags in patents received. Over the past decade, American firms and inventors account for about half the U.S. patents annually, and most of the rest go to Europeans and Japanese. Recall also that China's population of 1.4 billion is more than four times ours; not surprisingly, it needs more scientists, engineers and technicians.
In a sane world — shorn of nationalistic, economic, racial and ethnic conflicts — none of this would be particularly alarming. Technology is mobile, and gains made in China could be enjoyed elsewhere, and vice versa. But in our contentious world, China's technological prowess is potentially threatening, as the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional watchdog group, has often pointed out.
One danger is military. If China makes a breakthrough in a crucial technology — satellites, missiles, cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, electromagnetic weapons — the result could be a major shift in the strategic balance and, possibly, war.
Even if this doesn't happen, warns the commission, China's determination to dominate new industries such as artificial intelligence, telecommunications and computers could lead to economic warfare if China maintains subsidies and discriminatory policies to sustain its firms' competitive advantage.
"Industries like computing, robotics, and biotechnology are pillars of U.S. economic competitiveness, sustaining and creating millions of high-paying jobs and high-value-added exports," the commission said in its latest annual report. "The loss of global leadership in these future drivers of global growth" would weaken the American economy. Chinese theft of U.S. industrial trade secrets compounds the danger.
The best response to this technological competition is to reinvigorate America's own technological base. For example: Overhaul immigration to favor high-skilled newcomers, not relatives of previous immigrants; raise defense spending on new technologies to counter China; increase other federal spending on "basic research." (Government provides most of the money for this research, which is the quest for knowledge for its own sake, and amazingly has cut spending in recent years).
"We are involved in a global race for knowledge," said France Córdova, head of the NSF. "We may be the innovation leader today, but other countries are rapidly gaining ground."
It is hardly surprising that China has hitched its economic wagon to advanced technologies. What is less clear and more momentous is our willingness and ability to recognize this and do something about it.
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