Rise of scientific powerhouses not stemming PhD outflow

The rise of new scientific powerhouses in Asia provokes the question of what the impact will be on science. In particular, does a shift of scientific power to Asia mean the flow of scientific talent from East to West will dry up? And are Asian scientific centres new cooperation partners in science for the West?

United States universities import much of their scientific talent from abroad, especially from Asia, and are worried about continuing to fill their research centres with imported brains. This concern, however, is not justified by the data: overall, the evidence shows that the international mobility of Asian scientific talent continues to increase.

Most of the post-2002 increase in US natural sciences and engineering doctorate production reflects degrees awarded to foreigners. Foreign nationals have earned more than half of these US doctorates since 2006 and the China-US flow is by far the most important.

China’s share of the PhD degrees awarded by US institutions to foreigners continues to grow, amounting to almost a third of all 'foreign' PhDs granted in 2007, while India's share was 12% and South Korea's was 10%.

The rise in Asia's own production of PhDs does not seem to be stopping the flows of students from Asia to the US for PhD training. Similar trends are observed in the movement of Asian postdoctoral students to the US: the rise in tertiary degrees awarded in Asia seems to have provided an even bigger and better pool of talent for US PhD programmes.

This evidence suggests that Asian countries are building their science and technology capacity in natural sciences and engineering by sending their best students to the best training ground in the world – the US – in the hope of bringing them home once they have acquired state-of-the-art scientific knowledge.

Return rates not high

But these return rates do not yet show up in the data. In fact, Asian stay rates remain very high, significantly higher than European Union (EU) stay rates.

Chinese and Indian PhD students record the highest rates and this has only marginally decreased over time. South Korean students have a higher probability of returning after their PhD compared to students in other Asian countries, but this immediate return rate has also declined over time.

The increase in Asia’s own scientific capability therefore does not seem to have led to a greater propensity of Asian PhDs to return from the US, certainly not immediately upon graduation. Return rates at later stages of the researcher’s career may be on the rise but there are no systematic statistics on this.

The presence of foreign PhD students in the EU is less well systematically recorded.

The imperfect evidence shows that the PhD student populations of EU countries have fewer foreigners compared to the US while the geographic sources of foreign PhD students are different, with a less strong Asian presence and with geographic, cultural and historical links being more important.

New cooperation partners?

Does the rise of new scientific powerhouses in Asia provide new cooperation partners for scientists in the US and Europe? The biggest partner for all three countries is, not surprisingly, the US. There is also more co-publishing by Chinese, South Korean and Taiwanese researchers with other Asian countries.

South Korea, Japan and China are the most important country partners for international scientific collaboration, after the US. While the US and Japan are decreasing in share, China is a fast riser as a partner for Korea. European countries are low and even decreasing in terms of their research collaboration with Korea.

That the US comes as first partner should be no surprise, either, given it is also the world's number one producer of science. There is also a marked difference between the US and EU countries such as France, Germany and Britain in scientific collaboration with rising Asian scientific powerhouses.

US collaboration with the Asian rising stars of China, South Korea and Taiwan is not only important in absolute terms but is also more significant than expected given the partners’ scientific size, reflecting an intense collaboration between these pairs of countries. The intensity of collaboration, however, has somewhat decreased over time.

Also, with Taiwan and China, US international collaboration is above par. The high flow of Asian students to the US for their training is certainly correlated with this more intense international collaboration between host and home economies.

This contrasts markedly with European countries that, lacking the same intensity of flows of Asian students, are also below par in their scientific collaborations with China, South Korea and Taiwan.

The increasing European integration with the European Research Area stimulating intra-EU cooperation may have diverted attention from extra-EU collaboration.

While China’s bilateral scientific relationship with European countries may not yet be on a par with its rising scientific power, its relationships with other Asian countries are above par, illustrating intense regional intra-Asian collaboration.

Above-par levels of Chinese collaboration can be found with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. An exception is China and India, which have a rate of collaboration that is below par and which has diminished noticeably.

Chinese-Russian collaboration is also below par while South Korea’s international collaboration with other Asian counties is above par. It is also well connected to India and Russia. Korean collaboration with European countries is underdeveloped.


With the rise of new scientific powerhouses in Asia, the question arises of what the impact will be on science and economic growth.

In this contribution, we have only looked at the impact of the globalisation of science on the scientific process itself. Although fears are mounting in the US that that their open model for building scientific power is ending, for the moment the US-Asia connection remains strong, as reflected in the flow of scientific talent and international scientific collaboration.

With its more inward-looking perspective, Europe seems to have been bypassed by the Asian scientific rise. At least, the below-par European-Asian scientific collaboration seems to show this.

The rise of Asian countries as scientific powerhouses is accompanied by increasing intra-Asian research collaboration.

The impact of this shifting geography in science will extend beyond science. It will also have implications for the geography of innovation, as the innovative capacity of Asian scientific powerhouses grows, and as large innovating companies from the West start to locate their research and development activities closer to the new Asian scientific and economic powerhouses.

* Dr Reinhilde Veugelers is a professor of managerial economics, strategy and innovation at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Flanders. This is an edited version of a blog by Veugeler published on the Bruegel website. Bruegel is a think-tank devoted to policy research on international economic issues. Based in Brussels, it was ranked first worldwide among all think-tanks in international economic policy in 2012.