China awarded more than four times as many bachelor degrees in science and engineering than the USA in 2010

Academic superpower rising in the east

Both the quantity and quality of science and engineering research in China is rising rapidly as the country begins to establish itself as an academic superpower.

A new study has found the number of top one per cent highly cited Chinese academic papers in science and engineering surpassed those from Japan in 2005 and reached parity with Germany and the UK in about 2009, and while China is still lagging behind world leader the USA its ouput climbed sharply from 6 per cent of the USA’s in 2001 to 31 per cent in 2011.

The country is also now the world’s distant leader in bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering with 1.1 million in 2010, more than four times the US figure, due not only to recent expansion in higher education but also a much higher percentage of students majoring in the subjects in China – about 44 per cent in 2010 compared with 16 per cent in the US.

While China’s population must be taken into account, the authors say the pace of growth is the most impressive feature. The number of doctoral degrees awarded in these subjects in China in 1993 was only 10 per cent of those presented in the US, but by 2010 China had exceeded its output by 18 per cent.

The study also found that engineers in China earn more than other top professions such as lawyers, doctors and social scientists with scientists coming a close second, whereas in the US doctors and lawyers are vastly better remunerated.

“Recall that most recent high-ranking officials in China came from engineering backgrounds,” said Yue Xi, professor of sociology, statistics, and public policy, at the University of Michigan, and co-author of the paper appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Chinese science is becoming more competitive now.  British scientists need to work harder to keep their lead and also could benefit from collaborating with Chinese scientists.”

The study identifies a government push in 1998 to increase both the quality and quantity of higher education centres as the genesis of China’s recent growth, which saw the number of institutions more than double from 1,022 in 1998 to 2,263 in 2008 and existing institutions upgraded and enlarged.

But the authors also note a concerted policy of tempting leading academics of Chinese origin back from the west with attractive recruitment packages, starting with the Changjiang Scholars Program in 1998 and followed by the Thousand Talent Program in 2008, which had the explicit goal of raiding first-tier foreign research institutions for senior-level scientists.

“Aided in part by a global financial crisis, the program attracted numerous overseas Chinese scientists back to China,” the authors write. “Even as the number of students studying abroad continued to increase, the ratio of returnees to exits rose from 30.56 per cent in 2007 to 38.54 per cent in 2008, and again to 47.23 per cent in 2009.”

In particular, the study highlights the country’s growing leadership in physical disciplines – in 2011 China was producing 98 per cent of the US’ output of articles in the physical sciences, 77 per cent in engineering and 62 per cent in mathematical sciences, compared to only 34 per cent in biological sciences.

By 2005 China was the world leader in the publication of articles in the subfield of material science, a feat it mirrored in chemistry in 2008, and by 2011 it was producing 169 per cent of the US’ output of material science papers and 127 per cent in chemistry.

The ratio of China’s R&D gross expenditure to that of the US has also increased sharply in recent years, from 5 per cent in 1991 to 44 per cent in 2010 according to estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But while this new financial clout is largely thanks to the countries centralised government, which has greater freedom to allocate funds without the constant need to justify them faced by Western democracies, the authors have noted that the fact funding comes directly from government agencies opens the door to political interference.

And while the quality of research has increased dramatically, the Chinese research is not without its problems – using trend data from Google News to track the public’s attention to scholarly and scientific fraud and corruption the study found a dramatic rise in such incidents since 2006.

But despite these issues, the authors of the paper believe the rise of China as a centre of excellence in science and engineering is positive, rather than something the West should see as a threat.

“Healthy competition for scientific excellence across the globe is beneficial to science overall,” they write. “The days when there was only a single world centre of science may soon exist only as legacies of the past. Today’s world of science may be characterized as having multiple centres of scientific excellence across the globe.

“When science in China and other fast-developing countries improves, it greatly expands the scale of science and thus speeds up scientific discoveries, benefitting the entire human race.”

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