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3 Charts Show That China's Scientific Dominance Over The US Is A Done Deal

Lauren F Friedman
laboratory china science test tubes

Aly Song / Reuters

Researchers prepare medicine at a laboratory in Nanjing University in China. The clinical trials business has gone global as drugmakers seek cheaper venues for studies.

Anyone who watched the moon landing or uses the internet can attest to the strong tradition of scientific innovation in the United States. But China is now poised to blow past the U.S. to become dominant in science and engineering, as it has already done in global trade.

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan and Peking University in Beijing published a study highlighting China's growing scientific dominance in a recent issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Specifically, they focused on China's potential to knock the U.S. out of its spot as the world's undisputed leader in the science, tech, engineering, and math fields — collectively called STEM.

The researchers write: "Two recent reports by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine have raised concerns that the United States may soon lose its scientific leadership role and suffer negative economic consequences."

These three charts make their case.

China is churning out a staggering number of science graduates.

While China and the U.S. currently award science and engineering degrees to an equivalent proportion of their populations, China has sharply increased the number of graduates in these fields — and the U.S. does not seem poised to catch up anytime soon.

Chinese students also receive more American doctoral degrees in science and engineering than any other foreign students. Between 1987 and 2010, there was a threefold increase in the number of Chinese students in these programs (from 15,000 to 43,000).

china science chart 3 pnas


China's science and engineering labor force is exploding.

The U.S. has a much smaller population and yet is still ahead of China in terms of how many people work in science and engineering fields. But while the growth of the U.S.'s STEM labor force has been slow and steady, the growth of this specialized workforce in China has exploded in the last 10 years. The paper attributes this to the expansion of higher education in China that began in 1999.

china science chart 1 pnas


Chinese scientists get paid more than American scientists.

People who pursue science in China have much better earning potential than their counterparts in the U.S. Chinese scientists are paid better than their highly educated peers, while in the U.S., the reverse is true. U.S. lawyers, for example, go to school for less time than Ph.D. scientists, but make much more money.

"When talented youth face alternative career options, everything else being equal, more Chinese would be attracted to science than Americans," because of the pay the researchers write.

china science chart 2 pnas


The PNAS researchers identify "four factors [that] favor China's continuing rise in science: a large population and human capital base, a labor market favoring academic meritocracy, a large diaspora of Chinese-origin scientists, and a centralized government willing to invest in science."

Still, scientists in the United States have some serious advantages, since, as the researchers note, "China's science faces potential difficulties due to political interference and scientific fraud."

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