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Research Funding

China may have pulled ahead of US in race for top spot in global science R&D

China is rising in research funding, patents, and publications

by Andrea Widener
January 15, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 3


By the Numbers: US investment in science and engineering


Average annual growth in US R&D spending from 2000 to 2017.


Share of US R&D funded by the federal government, compared with 43% from businesses.


US share of global R&D in 2017, down from 37% in 2000.


US share of all science and engineering publications in 2018. The EU had 24%, followed by China with 21%.


Percentage of doctorate degrees awarded in the US to international students in 2016, when the rate of increase in foreign students coming to the US slowed for the first time.

SOURCE: 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators, US National Science Board

China likely surpassed the US in research funding for the first time in 2019, according to projections presented in a new report on the state of science in the US and worldwide.

The 2020 Science & Engineering Indicators, the bible of science and engineering data, shows that this step is just the most recent development in a trend that began decades ago, when China began investing heavily in science research. The Indicators report is published by the US National Science Board (NSB), which puts out the Congressionally mandated report every two years.

“For the US to continue to play a leading role, we can’t be complacent in the face of these challenges. We must adapt,” says Julia Phillips, chair of NSB’s Science and Engineering Policy Committee and retired vice president at Sandia National Laboratories.

In 2017, the most recent year those data are available, the US spent $548 billion on R&D, more than any other country. Growth in US R&D has been driven primarily by the business sector, including growth in basic research. Federal funding has stayed almost flat and has declined as a share of overall R&D spending, from 25% in 2000 to 22% in 2018.

The projection that China will overtake the US in spending in 2019 will be confirmed as soon as the NSB gets more recent data, Phillips says. China contributed 32% of all growth in R&D spending since 2000, compared with 20% for the US and 17% for the European Union.

China’s rise in research funding is reflected in other areas as well. The country’s scientists accounted for 49% of all related patents worldwide in 2018, though just 5% of US patents. In addition, China is steadily increasing its percentage of research publications, from just 5% in 2000 to 21% in 2018. The US remains dominant in its proportion of highly cited articles, followed by the EU. But China’s proportions are growing.

“Science and engineering is truly a global enterprise now,” Phillips says. The US is unlikely to retain its dominance, she said. “Clearly we need to think forward.”



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