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The U.S. is worried it will lose its scientific edge to China. By one new measure, it already has

August 11, 2022, 9:55 AM UTC
Chinese president Xi Jinping visits a seed factory in Hainan
A report released Tuesday says China now beats the U.S. in the quantity and quality of academic research.
Li Xueren—Xinhua/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers passed the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act out of a fear that China was about to overtake the U.S. in scientific and technological expertise. But a recently released study suggests that, by one measure, China already has.

On Tuesday, Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy released a report showing that 27.2% of the top 1% of most-cited papers in 2019 came from Chinese institutions. (How often a paper is cited by other scientists and researchers is considered a measure of its quality.) The U.S. came in second place, releasing 24.9% of the top 1% of most-cited papers.

Earlier reports from the institute show that China was already beating the U.S. when it came the number of papers published. In 2020, the institute said China had published 305,927 papers (or 19.9% of the total), compared with the U.S.’s 281,487.

But now China appears to have topped the U.S. in quality, not just in quantity, of scientific research.

The speed at which China has caught up to the U.S. is a result of the country’s goal to become a world leader in tech by 2050.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has prioritized investments in research and development in an effort to make China more self-sufficient, rather than relying on imports of advanced technology from overseas. The country spent a record $441.3 billion on research and development in 2021. (The U.S. spent $664 billion in 2020, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). In July, the Aspen Institute, a U.S. think tank, predicted that China would overtake the U.S. in R&D spending by 2025.  

China’s growing R&D heft motivated lawmakers to pass the CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law on Tuesday. “Other countries are closing in fast” on the U.S., said President Joe Biden during the act’s signing ceremony.

The act offers $280 billion in incentives to encourage U.S. research and development, including $52 billion in subsidies to support U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. The act also prevents chip companies that receive U.S. subsidies from expanding production of advanced chips in China, leading chipmaking companies like Samsung and SK Hynix to reportedly consider moving production elsewhere. 

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