China's Amazing Science Slope

By Chris Mooney | January 25, 2010 8:41 am

Over the weekend, to prepare for my keynote at the Hope Summit 2010 in St. Louis, I went back through the Unscientific America PowerPoint and added a number of updates and new observations. I may blog a number of the changes, but I want to highlight one of them in particular–I added this figure from the latest Science and Engineering Indicators report out of NSF:


Contrary to popular misconceptions, the U.S. is producing an increasing, not decreasing, number of scientists and engineers right now. But China…whoa. The figures above only go through 2007, and in light of that slope, it may well be that China is producing more science and engineering Ph.D.s annually than any other country in the world by now.

What you’re looking at, folks, is the rapid birth of a science superpower.

So when you hear concerns about declining U.S. leadership in science, there is definitely something to it. In fact, those concerns aren’t just rearview mirror watching any more; China is the car that’s blowing past us in the left lane. Whether they are producing scientists who are as talented, as well-trained, or as interdisciplinary as American scientists, I can’t say. But boy are they ever producing scientists.


Comments (13)

  1. Walker

    I have reviewed many papers from academics out of China. And while some of them are extremely good, by and large the work I see is absolutely awful. Either the ideas are trite or the papers shamelessly plagiarize.

    So quantity of PhDs tells us nothing about China. It certainly is not evidence for them being a science superpower.

  2. gillt

    This graph says the same thing and seems less cluttered.

    Chapter 2, pg. 35

  3. I would prefer to see that on a per-capita basis.

  4. Sorbet

    I think a more apt statement would be that China seems to be overtaking us from the right lane.

    In all honesty though, I second Walker’s quip about the quality of papers and research coming out of China. Now contrast that with research produced by Chinese graduate students and postdocs working in this country which is of much higher quality.

    I think quality definitely matters; to me China always seems to be in a rather mindless race to compete with the US in terms of quantity, a tactic that is not going to achieve much in the long term.

  5. Sorbet, that is what they used to say about Japanese cars, especially the Toyopet and the Datsun.

  6. Questions of quality aside, the pace of science education in China ought to be one of the strongest arguments AGAINST teaching nonsense like Intelligent Design in the U.S. China is clearly commited to creating a reality-based science culture, and this is what the U.S. must compete with in the years to come. In a way, things like Intelligent Design are anti-American.

  7. Sorbet

    Wes, I am not sure one can compare scientific creativity and car manufacturing. To some extent the numbers will make a difference, but scientific creativity thrives best in an open environment and I am not sure to what extent this goal will be achieved in China. Plus, standards for publishing and accountability seem to be much more respected in the US. I don’t know when this will happen in China. Again and again you hear reports of researchers in China and India either engaging in shoddy research and publication practices or simply plagiarizing.

  8. GM

    I just read your book and based on it and what I see on this blog, I must say that there is a lot of naiveness in your writings and views on the subject.

    It’s not just the quantity, it’s the quality that matters.

    It’s not a secret, for example, that many people in the US are awarded PhDs without deserving it, because funding ran out or they were already in the program for too long and keeping them there longer or cutting them off would look bad on the stat sheet of the institution, or some other reason of that sort. That on its own wouldn’t be such a problem if they were at least taught to think like scientists, and many of them may well have been, but my feeling is that there is a huge number of PhDs, both the ones that truly fulfilled the requirements and the ones that just got out of the program, that haven’t acquired that.

    And that is probably even more true in China where, again, based on personal observations (that’s all there is available, unfortunately), it seems like the emphasis sin’t on creating a “reality-based” culture but on producing as many technically competent experts as possible. Some portions of them will have also adopted the “reality-based” worldview, and the total number of such people will be greater than if there were not so many PhDs, but overall this is not at all a positive development, because technically-savvy but scientifically illiterate (in the methodological sense) people are actually more harmful than helpful. And they tend to propagate these characteristics into the next generations of scientists that they train

    The increased number of PhDs in the US is a result of the funding boom in the late 90s/early 00s. It takes several years to expand laboratories and PhD programs, then it takes another 5 or 6 years for those students to graduate, and that’s what your seeing in the chart. It is not at all an indication of the current state of affairs

  9. EricC

    Based on personal observation, American universites are choked full of Chinese graduate students. in fact, out of the top 40 feeder school of phd students for US college, 9 of them are chinese universities, including the top two: Tsinghua University, Peking University. That was reported by science mag in 2008.

    Every year, there are over 1500-1800 Chinese students got their phd in US.

  10. J.J.E.

    Well, I have to agree with the assessment that the quality of science from Chinese institutions is much lower than the U.S. However, I think that’s perfectly acceptable in the interim. They are building themselves up from essentially nothing post-Cultural Revolution. Just a generation ago, being an academic was often a death sentence. So, to see this rapid rise in academic science and engineering is nothing but good news.

    Of course, the quality does need to continue to rise. The papers I have reviewed from Chinese authors as well as the Chinese papers that have cited my own work or work in my field is very hit or miss. Sometimes, I’m super excited. At other times, I see work published in a Chinese journal that wouldn’t be acceptable as a term paper in an upper level grad course. So, yes, consistency needs to increase. But that will take a generation.

    So, the lower quality isn’t necessarily a criticism. It is to some degree unavoidable. What we really need to evaluate is if the quality stagnates or continues to rise.

    Oh, and so what if China some day produces 4x as many well-qualified scientists as the U.S. does? They have a huge population. This is the democratization of science. One of the things that was frustrating about Unscientific America is how it wasn’t centered on the virtues of science and critical thinking, but how it was often (not always, but often) centered on how the U.S. stood up to others. If China ever became “infested” with highly trained critical thinkers who are very well-versed in science, that can only be good news. Those sorts of people are good for the world in general and the U.S. right now has more than its fair share. There is nowhere to go but down. Granted, we should fight that and our education at lower level totally sucks, and we rely too much on brain-drain dynamics. All good points. But China’s improvement is good news, not some “warning shot”.

  11. UchicagoMan

    Knowledge, information, and truth know no boundaries (Except the Great FireWall, jk đŸ˜‰ ) and belongs to no one.

    It is a good thing, even if quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality.

    We should be honored that PhD students come here to learn and produce research.

    America should strive to keep it that way.

    We should worry if people stop attending our nation’s schools, be it international students or domestic.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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