For years, China has been the spooky monster in America's rear-view mirror, a land where, we're told, the government is producing students interested in science and engineering in unprecedented numbers, a place that's going to eventually supplant the United States as The World's Superpower.
Well, a study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that those Chinese students are finally starting to do real science, and that the gains the country has made in the last decade or so haven't merely been in printing out engineering degrees. To be clear—China has gotten really very good at that, too—take a look at this graph comparing the number of science and engineering bachelor's degrees (A) and doctoral degrees (B) given to students in the US (blue) and China (red).
Thing is, those hordes of science and engineering students the country has been educating are finally starting to do some of the most important scientific work in the world.
The United States still leads China in both total scientific output and overall scientific importance—as measured by the number of journal articles published and the number of times those articles are cited. But China is quickly gaining and has surpassed the United States in a few key subject matters, a development that "greatly expands the scale of science," according to Yu Xie, a researcher at the University of Michigan. "The data we have analyzed all indicate that China has become a major contributor to science and technology."
In 1990, Chinese scientists published 6,104 scholarly journal articles. In 2011, they published 122,672, an insane 1,909 percent increase.
Chinese scientists publish nearly twice as many scholarly articles in material science as American scientists do and also leads the United States in chemistry. The country has also pulled much closer to the United States in the physical sciences, engineering, and math.
As recently as 2001, the US produced 20 times as many "influential" scientific papers—those that are in the top 1 percent most-cited in the world. By 2011, the US was producing just three times as many influential papers. China now outpaces the rest of the world, besides the United States, in that category (the country is about on par with Germany and the United Kingdom).
Number of "highly cited" scientific articles, United States (blue), European Union (green), Germany (teal), UK (purple) Image: PNAS
The implication is clear: All the hemming and hawing that politicians have done about STEM education in America over the last couple years is finally starting to mean something. China isn't merely stealing our patents and hacking into our companies' computer systems to steal blueprints—the country's scientists are making their own things.
Chinese engineering and science companies now spend about half as much on research and development as American companies. In 1991, they spent five percent as much.
How'd they do it? By doubling the number of colleges in China from 1,022 in 1998 to 2,263 in 2008, and by upgrading the existing universities to accommodate more students. Turns out, the country has similarly managed to ramp up its contributions to science. To be sure, the United States is still out in front, but it's getting increasingly tough to see the margin.