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Is China a Scientific Powerhouse?

Yanji University of Science and Technology lecture in Yanji, China

Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images

Yanji University of Science and Technology lecture in Yanji, China

China has vastly expanded higher education over the past three decades—in 1982, less than 1 percent of China’s twenty-somethings had attended college; by 2010, the figure had risen to 20 percent.

The number of Chinese students earning degrees in science and engineering fields has likewise grown rapidly. An increasing number of the country’s brightest future scientists choose to continue their education at American graduate schools, which generally have better facilities and more internationally respected faculty: The Chinese students enrolled in American science and engineering programs tripled from 1987 to 2010, to 43,000. And China sends more students to U.S. doctoral programs than does any other country.

Whether these trends indicate progress, shortfalls, or both in China’s domestic science education is a debatable point. Another tricky question is assessing how much weight to give to the rising volume of papers by Chinese scientists published in international journals, at the same time that China’s government spending on science is ballooning—as are the number of scandals related to science funding.

A new paper published online on June 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attempts to assess “China’s rise as a major contributor to science and technology.” The authors, who are researchers at Peking University and the University of Michigan, conclude that “the quality of research by Chinese scientists has been improving steadily. However, China’s rise in science also faces serious difficulties, partly attributable to its rigid, top-down administrative system, with allegations of scientific misconduct trending upward.”

The authors also dug up some interesting stats comparing science in the U.S. and China. While scientists typically earn less than other high-prestige occupations that require advanced degrees in the U.S.—such as doctors and lawyers—in China, they earn more. (Specifically, the authors write, “In China, scientists earn 25% more than social scientists, 13% more than medical doctors, and 5% more than lawyers, whereas American scientists earn 7% less than social scientists, 50% less than medical doctors, and 34% less than lawyers.”) In both countries, women make up roughly a quarter of the total workforce of scientists and engineers.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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