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China’s Growing Role In Science

Competition: Study shows country is gaining strength but facing hurdles

by Andrea Widener
June 20, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 25

Credit: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA
Three graphs show how China’s science and technology standings have risen in terms of labor force and research publications, but that China’s number of highly cited papers has not kept the same pace.
Credit: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA

Fear that China might overtake the U.S. lead in science and technology has spurred many research studies and congressional hearings.

And a new analysis comparing China and U.S. science and technology data confirms that China has made impressive gains in the past decade. But the study also points out that China faces significant challenges (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2014, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1407709111).

The U.S. “is not really failing from a historical point of view,” says Yu Xie, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who led the study. However, “America as a dominant player in science may be challenged by the rise of science in other countries,” including China.

The paper documents a massive increase in China’s science and technology labor force, fueled primarily by the undergraduate and graduate science degree holders the county is producing. A large increase in the number of scientific publications has ensued, Xie says.

But China faces challenges in the quality of its research, which are reflected in its lower citation rates, concerns about scientific fraud, and fears the country is not scientifically creative. Xie says the massive bureaucracy that oversees universities and research institutes has led to many of these problems. For example, funding is decided by bureaucrats rather than peer review.

“Chinese scientists are keenly aware of the problem,” Xie says, and they are experimenting with ways to fix it. “You can already see there is a steady improvement in quality.”


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