China is reaping the rewards of its emphasis on ramping up spending on research and development and increasing the number of people graduating with science and technology bachelor’s degrees. A just-published report from the National Science Board (NSB), entitles Science & Engineering Indicators 2018, shows that China edged out the U.S. for percentage of worldwide science and engineering articles published in 2016, the latest year for which data is available.

Science and engineering articles, by global share of selected region, country or economy, 2006-2016. Source: Science and Technology Indicators 2018Science and engineering articles, by global share of selected region, country or economy, 2006-2016. Source: Science and Technology Indicators 2018

R&D investment is one of several indicators of a nation’s commitment to innovation and competitiveness. Between 2000 and 2015, U.S. R&D spending has stayed relatively flat, at around 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). In contrast, China’s R&D has increased half a percentage point, from less than one percent to over 1.5 percent, representing an annual increase in funding of around 18 percent. South Korea’s spending leapt from a bit over two percentage points to nearly 4.5 percent of GDP. The U.S. still spends more but, at present growth rates, China will overtake the U.S. in a few years.

Over the same period, China’s investment in bachelor’s-level STEM education has soared to 1,600,000 degrees in 2015, from less than 200,000 in 2000. The U.S. produced around 800,000 bachelor's degrees in STEM fields in 2015, an increase of around 200,000 from 2000. This marked increase in China’s entry-level-degreed workers feeds the demands for an educated technical workforce, increasing the country’s ability to undertake more sophisticated development and manufacturing endeavors.

The NSB, the governing body of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), publishes the report every two years at the behest of the U.S. Congress. The 2018 report documents a trend first noted in 2010, that the U.S. is steadily losing ground to the rest of the world in general, and China and other Asian countries in particular. Although the U.S. still leads the world in patents granted, advanced-degree production and other areas, the pace at which China and other countries like South Korea, Japan and India are growing their science and engineering commitments will shoot them ahead over the next few years.

Why is this important?

"This year's report shows a trend that the U.S. still leads by many S&T measures, but that our lead is decreasing in certain areas that are important to our country," said Maria Zuber, NSB chair and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That trend raises concerns about impacts on our economy and workforce, and has implications for our national security. From gene editing to artificial intelligence, scientific advancements come with inherent risks. And it's critical that we stay at the forefront of science to mitigate those risks."

Increased international cooperation, fostered by multinational academic research teams, could help spread scientific advances more generally throughout the globe. Some evidence of national specialization in particular fields – such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals in the U.S. and the European Union, and information and communications technologies in South Korea and China – could mean a more efficient development process. However, the reality of international scientific collaboration depends in part on an often unpredictable geopolitical climate.