Jan. 25, 2022 — China has passed the United States in global scientific leadership in several key areas, according to a new report from the National Science Board.

The board, under the National Science Foundation, prepares a report for the president and Congress on even-numbered years that details where the U.S. stands globally in scientific advancements.

This year’s “State of U.S. Science and Engineering” pinpointed some areas where China has taken the lead, including numbers of papers published and patents awarded.

According to the report, six countries produce more than 50% of the world’s peer-reviewed science and engineering publications: China (23%), the U.S. (16%), India (5%), Germany (4%), the United Kingdom (4%), and Japan (3%).

From 2000 to 2020, high-income countries, such as the U.S., Germany, and the United Kingdom, produced publications more slowly (an output rate increase of 3%) than middle-income countries such as China, Russia, and Brazil (with an average output increase of 11%).

China is also leading middle-income countries in passing high-income countries in number of patents. China’s share of international patents jumped from 16% in 2010 to 49% in 2020. The U.S. share during that time dropped from 15% to 10%; Japan’s dropped from 35% to 15%; and European Union countries’ share dropped from 12% to 8%.

The report also found the U.S. lags China in contributions globally to research and development growth overall.

“It would be the height of hubris to think that [the United States] would lead in everything. So, I think the most important thing is for the United States to decide where it cannot be No. 2,” Julia Phillips, PhD, an applied physicist who chairs the board’s committee that oversees the report, toldScience.

Phillips, who is also the home secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, told Science that her top priority would be leading in basic research, but the government does not have an impressive record on that in recent decades. She is doubtful, for instance, that Congress will pass legislation that promotes a much larger National Science Foundation through the next 5 years, or a 2022 appropriations bill that would give the foundation a large cash infusion.

As for potential strategies, “maintaining pathways for foreign talent and providing educational opportunities for international students are critical to sustaining the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] workforce,” the authors conclude in the report

Foreign Talent

The board’s report points out that international students on temporary visas account for more than half of U.S. doctoral degrees in economics, computer sciences, engineering, and mathematics and statistics.

As of 2018, China was close to catching up with the U.S. in the number of doctorates awarded in sciences and engineering.

Meanwhile, disparities persist in Kindergarten-12th grade STEM education, along with student performance across regions and by demographic and social and economic categories. This comes amid large gaps in the ability to afford higher education in general.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened those gaps, as some minority groups reported higher rates of lack of access to technology for online learning. Also, enrollment dropped sharply during the pandemic for community colleges, which have large percentages of minority groups. Improving access to high-quality online education will also help address these inequities, the report authors write.

Government funding is critical if the U.S. is to gain ground, the authors say.

Despite more federal funding for research and development, the overall proportion of research and development funded by the government has decreased from 31% in 2010 to an estimated 21% in 2019, according to the report.

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