American science in decline as China’s rises

American scientists published 409,000 science, technology and medical papers in 2017, according to the journal Learned Publishing, which analysed data from the United States National Science Board. In the same period, those in China published 426,000.

This change around has been swift and China's momentum will rapidly leave the US behind, the journal reported. It noted that “the number of science and engineering articles in all fields from China increased nearly five-fold from 2003 to 2016”.

Nature Index counts the number of authors by country in Science and Nature and reports that China is only a few years away from overtaking the US in authorship in these premier international journals.

While Chinese university professors are the lowest paid among the developed nations, they receive extra payment for additional duties.

These range from presiding over final graduate defences to publishing papers in prestigious journals: A paper accepted in Science or Nature can earn a Chinese professor an extra one million Chinese yuan bonus, or about US$150,000.

China now also supercharges its new academics with overseas training. To achieve the rank of professor in their top-tier universities, an academic must have studied somewhere in the West – Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the United States – for at least a year.

When these scholars return, having learned state-of-the-art research techniques, many are then provided with state-of-the-art research equipment.

This long-term policy and investment in education and people has paid off in accelerating advancements in science.

Chinese vs US higher education spending

While the US spends huge sums on the military, and relatively less on education and research, China is doing the complete opposite.

When President Deng Xiaoping opened up China in the 1980s, he made English the second language students had to study because of its dominance in world trade and science.

Even with learning English starting in elementary schools across the country, it has taken a long time for China to build the capacity of its citizens to read and speak English.

But English has been a major part of the high school exit test that determines which school students go on to college. This bilingual policy is now paying off, with young Chinese scientists reading and publishing their research in English.

China still has a way to go: It remains second to the US in research and development (R&D) spending, according to Science magazine, at US$254 billion, a 12.3% increase in 2016 over the prior year.

In 2012, China's spending on R&D was 34% that of America’s. But, by 2016, based on ‘purchasing power parity’, the giant Asian nation’s spending was equivalent to 88% that of the US. It seems likely to surpass America soon. China's budget for basic research hit US$14.1 billion in 2016, up 18.5% over the previous year.

The US has failed to move ahead in many areas of science, from particle accelerators to astronomy to organismic biology.

Two years ago I was in an insect museum in west-central China as new insect cabinets and drawers were installed. They provided an immediate 56% increase in the museum’s capacity. At the same time, the US National Science Foundation placed a six-month moratorium on American museum funding nationwide.

Today, specialists from the British Museum and the Illinois Natural History Survey go to the museum in China that now houses the world's leading collections for several major groups of insects. Meanwhile, the number of entomology departments in the US has dropped to barely half that of 20 years ago.

When it comes to numbers of active researchers, China is now second in the world after the European Union. The US is third and the European Union is concerned about how fast China is climbing the ranks.

As University World News has reported, the European Commission is “keeping a very close eye on China, particularly in the area of innovation...”, according to Marijk van der Wende, professor of law, economics and governance at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

“The EU realises that, while Europe has a performance lead, this is decreasing very rapidly because China has improved seven times faster than the EU in performance indicators.”

Trump’s policies

There are currently more than 350,000 international students enrolled in US universities and they generate substantial revenue for the nation.

The US also relies on Asian graduates staying on to fill vacancies in engineering, physics and chemistry. The shortage is because of America’s low science education requirements in its schools.

Meantime, the students I teach in China watch the news and many ask me whether they will still be welcomed in America. Anything positive I can offer, though, is soon be drowned out by another tweet from the White House.

A downturn is already occurring in the number of international students heading to the US as they divert to Australia, Canada and other friendlier countries.

The volume of science papers written by American scientists, coupled with the fall in international students studying in the US, suggests this may be the beginning of the end of the American century.

Dr Richard Schrock is an entomologist at Emporia State University in Kansas, United States. He travels and lectures each summer to students at Chinese universities.