China now publishes more high-quality science than any other nation — should the US be worried?

By at least one measure, China now leads the world in producing high-quality science. My research shows that Chinese scholars now publish a larger fraction of the top 1% most cited scientific papers globally than scientists from any other country.

I am a policy expert and analyst who studies how governmental investment in science, technology and innovation improves social welfare. While a country’s scientific prowess is somewhat difficult to quantify, I’d argue that the amount of money spent on scientific research, the number of scholarly papers published and the quality of those papers are good stand-in measures.

China is not the only nation to drastically improve its science capacity in recent years, but China’s rise has been particularly dramatic. This has left U.S. policy experts and government officials worried about how China’s scientific supremacy will shift the global balance of power. China’s recent ascendancy results from years of governmental policy aiming to be tops in science and technology. The country has taken explicit steps to get where it is today, and the U.S. now has a choice to make about how to respond to a scientifically competitive China.

Growth across decades

In 1977, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the Four Modernizations, one of which was strengthening China’s science sector and technological progress. As recently as 2000, the U.S. produced many times the number of scientific papers as China annually. However, over the past three decades or so, China has invested funds to grow domestic research capabilities, to send students and researchers abroad to study, and to encourage Chinese businesses to shift to manufacturing high-tech products.

Since 2000, China has sent an estimated 5.2 million students and scholars to study abroad. The majority of them studied science or engineering. Many of these students remained where they studied, but an increasing number return to China to work in well-resourced laboratories and high-tech companies.

Today, China is second only to the U.S. in how much it spends on science and technology. Chinese universities now produce the largest number of engineering Ph.D.s in the world, and the quality of Chinese universities has dramatically improved in recent years.

Producing more and better science

Thanks to all this investment and a growing, capable workforce, China’s scientific output – as measured by the number of total published papers – has increased steadily over the years. In 2017, Chinese scholars published more scientific papers than U.S. researchers for the first time.

Quantity does not necessarily mean quality though. For many years, researchers in the West wrote off Chinese research as low quality and often as simply imitating research from the U.S. and Europe. During the 2000s and 2010s, much of the work coming from China did not receive significant attention from the global scientific community.

But as China has continued to invest in…

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