China outwits the U.S. in scientific papers

2023. 9. 25. 19:43
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Money matters after all.

HAN WOO-DUKThe author is a senior reporter of the China Lab. The Nature Index, published by the American science journal Nature, is an indicator of research capabilities by country, research institute and university. It analyzes and aggregates papers published in 82 world-class academic journals.

An extraordinary event happened last year. China beat the United States and had the highest Nature Index. This means that China is the country that produces the most “world-class” papers in the field of science and technology.

This is not a strange story. China already surpassed the U.S. in the number of papers in leading international journals in 2017, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Chinese papers are also superb in quality. It produced the most number of science and technology papers cited in the top 1 percent in the world last year, beating the U.S., according to Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy. The Nature Index confirms this.

Money matters after all. Nature analyzed that China has invested about $526 billion in research and development (R&D) last year. It is poised to catch up with the U.S., which invested $656 billion in 2022.

How the money is used is more noteworthy than the sum. Nature noted that most of American papers are devoted to “far-fetched theories” while Chinese papers focus on realistic issues.

The data proves it. In 2021, 40 percent of the world’s scientific papers on artificial intelligence (AI) came from China, while the U.S. accounted for only 10 percent. The focus of Chinese academia is now moving to space development, semiconductors, and quantum computers. It is no coincidence that Chinese papers in these fields are rapidly increasing.

The U.S.-China conflict also affected the R&D rivalry between the two countries. In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump pushed for the “China Initiative” policy to drive out “science spies” from America. After this, many leading Chinese scientists active in the U.S. returned to China.

In 2021, as many as 2,621 packed up and left the U.S. The surge of Chinese papers is largely attributed to these returning scholars who had studied abroad. China attracts these scholars with diverse assistance programs, including financial support for start-ups, housing and education for children.

China pays attention to young scientists. Last month, it announced a plan to cultivate and utilize youth science and technology talents, which includes allocating more than 45% of science and technology funds to young researchers.

Thanks to this program, Chinese R&D centers are going through a generational change. Eighty percent of researchers participating in key state research programs are young scientists under the age of 45. They plan lunar exploration, study AI, and develop next-generation chips. It is quite different from Korea, where R&D budgets have been cut off under the Yoon Suk Yeol administration.

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