China Outpacing U.S. in Key Science Metrics

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

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China is pulling ahead of the United States when it comes to key indicators of science and engineering prowess, the National Science Board is warning.

“S&E investments and capabilities are growing globally and, in some cases, the growth in other countries has outpaced that of the U.S.,” said Ellen Ochoa, chair of the board. The nation is falling behind China in important areas such as growth in research-and-development investment, the manufacturing of critical emerging technologies and patents for innovative systems, according to the National Science Board’s

“State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022” report.

“The United States’ role as the world’s foremost performer of R&D is changing as Asia continues to increase its investments,” the study said.

“Growth in R&D and S&T output by other countries, including China, outpaced that of the United States. Consequently, even as U.S. R&D has increased, the U.S. share of global R&D has declined, and the relative position of the United States in some S&T activities has either not changed or decreased even as absolute activities increased.”

Technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum information science, microelectronics, biotechnology, robotics and space systems have been highlighted by Congress and the White House as some of the nation’s top R&D priorities, Ochoa noted.

China contributed 29 percent of the growth in global research and development between 2000 and 2019, compared to the United States’ 23 percent, according to the report.

Beijing is also leading the United States in knowledge- and technology-intensive, or KTI, industry manufacturing, although the United States is the largest producer of KTI services, Ochoa said during a press conference with reporters in January. KTI is defined as industries that globally have high rates of R&D.

Such industries “develop and deploy many of the critical and emerging technologies essential for current and future competitiveness,” she said.

There has been tremendous growth in KTI industry manufacturing in China, said Julia Phillips, chair of the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Policy Committee.

“It is an area of concern,” she told National Defense. In terms of national security, it is problematic if the manufacturing of certain critical technologies is concentrated in an adversarial country.

For example, the Pentagon has for years been sounding the alarm about the vulnerability of semiconductors. Microelectronics are foundational to the high-tech computers, cell phones and weapon systems the United States relies on. However, while the nation is a leader in the design of semiconductors, the manufacturing and production of them has moved offshore and is now concentrated in places such as China.

Meanwhile, Beijing has also increased its patenting activities, the report noted. The U.S. share of international patents declined from 15 percent to 10 percent between 2010 and 2020. China, meanwhile, increased its share from 16 percent to 49 percent in that same timeframe.

Those are concerning statistics, Phillips said. In many cases, “innovations are embodied in patents, so that indicates a high level of creativity and innovation that is going on in China.”

Another area to watch is the number of STEM students Beijing is matriculating. China is one of the world’s leaders in awarding science and engineering first-university degrees, which are roughly equivalent to bachelor’s degrees, according to the report.

The United States is currently leading in the number of S&E doctorates awarded, with 41,000 in 2018, but Beijing is “closing the gap,” the study said. However, China has surpassed Washington in awarding the most doctorate degrees in natural sciences and in engineering, it added.

To compete with other nations, the United States must continue to attract and welcome foreign talent, Ochoa said.

“The U.S. has long been the premier developer of global STEM talent,” she said. “But the decline in the number of international students coming to the U.S. in recent years is a cause for concern.”

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the decline of international higher education enrollment worldwide in 2020, and the number of international S&E students enrolled at U.S. institutions declined by about 20 percent, according to the report.

“International enrollment and attracting the best and the brightest from around the world is a great asset to the U.S., and we cannot afford to lose ground,” Ochoa said.

“Once the pandemic abates, it is not a foregone conclusion that international students will continue to come to the U.S. at the same rate as before, as other nations increasingly offer attractive options, and many students now have excellent educational and career opportunities in their home countries,” she added.

To remain a magnet for overseas talent, the United States must have a clear, consistent and predictable visa system and ensure that those who come to study in the country feel both welcome and secure, she said.

Meanwhile, Phillips noted that Chinese universities are increasingly becoming a preeminent source of research and development. That could affect the decision making of some students who otherwise would study in the United States.

“China — which is our largest source of foreign talent in the graduate schools — has outstanding opportunities for many of its own students to stay right at home and have a great education and a great career,” she said. The United States must “continue to be attractive for the best and brightest, wherever they come from, to come to this country and contribute their S&E talent to our own pool.”

Topics: Global Defense Market

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