Opinion

China is the world’s new science and technology powerhouse

Chinese R&D investment has grown remarkably over the past two decades. It is now the second-largest performer in terms of R&D spending, on a country basis, and accounts for 20 percent of total world R&D expenditure, with the rate of R&D investment growth greatly exceeding that of the U.S. and the EU.

By: Date: August 30, 2017 Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy

This piece was originally published in BRINK Asia.

Scientific knowledge and its use in technology and economic and societal development has become increasingly global and multipolar. While Europe and the U.S. have traditionally led in scientific development, China in particular has emerged as a new science and technology (S&T) powerhouse.

A key indicator of the rise of China in S&T is its spending on research and development (R&D). Chinese R&D investment has grown remarkably over the past two decades, with the rate of growth greatly exceeding that of the U.S. and the EU.

China is now the second-largest performer in terms of R&D spending, on a country basis, and accounts for 20 percent of total world R&D expenditure. It is also increasingly prominent in industries that intensively use scientific and technological knowledge.

Exhibit 1: R&D spending in billions of dollars (current, in purchasing power parity terms)

While the U.S. has led the world in the production of scientific knowledge for decades, in terms of both quantity and quality, and the EU as a bloc (still including the UK) has outperformed the U.S. in numbers of scientific publications since 1994, China now publishes more than any other country apart from the U.S. China’s scientific priorities are shown by a particularly big increase in its share of published papers in the fields of computer sciences and engineering. While China—for now—is making modest inroads into the top-quality segment of publications, it is already on par with Japan.

This steep improvement in S&T performance has been underpinned by significant strides in science and engineering education. China is now the world’s number one producer of undergraduates with science and engineering degrees, delivering almost one quarter of first university degrees in science and engineering globally. Since 2007, the country has awarded more Ph.D. degrees in natural sciences and engineering than any other country globally.

Exhibit 2: The growing number of degrees awarded (in thousands)

Source: Bruegel, based on NSF (2016)
China’s rise in science and technology is not an accident. Successive Chinese leaderships have seen S&T as integral to economic growth and have consequently taken steps to develop the country’s S&T-related infrastructure.

Technology development and innovation figure prominently in the current thirteenth five-year plan (2016-20). China’s National Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development (MLP), introduced in 2006, is an ambitious plan to transform the Chinese economy into a major center of innovation by the year 2020 and to make it the global leader in science and innovation by 2050. One of the goals of the MLP is to boost R&D expenditure to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—a target that has largely already been reached.

Global Implications

The benefits from a global science world with China as an extra strong pole will accrue to many, but some will benefit more than others. In particular, the EU and the U.S. will likely respond in different ways to the rise of China as an S&T powerhouse.

The U.S. science system has traditionally benefited from foreigners. The dominant position of the U.S. in science is based on its openness to the brightest talent of all nationalities, and this top position keeps attracting the best talents from around the world, who contribute to U.S. science, technology and economic success. Foreign talent is thus vital for U.S. science and engineering capacity. This is why the U.S. could feel threatened about the fact that the power of its S&T machine will diminish if the pool of foreign talent entering the U.S. dries up. There is no clear evidence so far, however, to justify this fear.

For the moment, the rise of China’s own capacity to produce science and engineering degrees does not seem to disconnect the U.S. from the pool of potential Chinese candidates to recruit from. With continued high attrition rates in China and high stay rates in the U.S. for foreign scientists, this open model, at least for the moment, continues to bear fruit for the U.S., even if the most important source country, China, is rapidly developing its own scientific capability.

China’s growth model for science, although aspiring to be indigenous, still involves sending out its increasingly better locally trained scholars to the best institutes in the world and reaping the benefits upon their return in later stages of their careers when they have fully developed their capabilities. All this leaves a China-U.S. connection that is virtuous, mutually beneficial for both science systems, and so far robust.

Nevertheless, concerns are mounting in the U.S. about the sustainability of its capacity for innovation and international competitiveness, driven by the more recent trend to move to a more restrictive immigration policy. This comes in addition to a reluctance to allocate public funding to support the building of S&T infrastructure.

The EU science pole is largely holding its own, based on the intensifying process of intra-EU integration. However, this process of integration is bumpy, and with the Brexit vote outcome, it is facing a major challenge. Furthermore, the EU S&T pole does not have the same deep openness to foreign scientific talent from China that the U.S. has, resulting in the absence of similarly sized flows of students and researchers.

The EU must show a stronger commitment to joining the science globalization train and subsequently ensure that European economies will benefit from it. An integrated European area for science and technology, characterized by scientific and technological excellence, is a necessary condition for this. Excellence will ensure that talented people in European research institutes and firms will be better able to absorb the new knowledge generated abroad and will be more attractive hubs for the best talent from abroad and for partners for international S&T cooperation and networks. But while reinforcing the European pole by deeper integration, it should also be more open externally.

The intra-EU mobility agenda should avoid navel gazing and be seen more as a lever for global integration. European S&T policymakers should promote and remove barriers for scientific collaboration both intra-EU and with countries outside the bloc. It should do more to attract the best foreign talent, wherever it is located in the world.

Mutual Benefit

China’s ambition to be a global leader in science and innovation by 2050 seems well within reach. The U.S. remains the favored destination for Chinese students, which has led to the creation of U.S.-China science and technology networks and connections that are mutually beneficial, enabling China to catch up and helping the U.S. to keep its position at the science frontier. The EU has much less-developed scientific connections to China than the U.S. The EU should take steps to engage more with China if it is not to miss out in the future multipolar science and technology world.

A more detailed analysis can be found here. All data in the article is from the same policy paper.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

China’s investment in Africa: What the data really says, and the implications for Europe

China has clearly signalled to Europe that it does not shy away from involvement in Africa, historically Europe’s area of influence. But the nature of China’s direct investment flows to the continent will have to change if they are to prove sustainable.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Jianwei Xu Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 22, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

The 4th industrial revolution: opportunities and challenges for Europe and China

What is the current status of EU-China relations concerning innovation, and what might their future look like?

Speakers: Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Chen Dongxiao, Patrick Child, Eric Cornuel, Maria Demertzis, Ding Yuan, Luigi Gambardella, Jiang Jianqing, Frank Kirchner, Pascal Lamy, Li Mingjun, Gwenn Sonck, Gerard Van Schaik, Reinhilde Veugelers, Wang Hongjian, Guntram B. Wolff, Xu Bin, Zhang Hongjun and Zhou Snow Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: July 12, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

What bond markets tell about China’s economy

Macro data doesn’t provide a comprehensive picture to investors, but bond issuance data can fill in some gaps.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Gary Ng Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 10, 2019
Read about event

Upcoming Event

Sep
9
08:30

China-EU investment relations: Exploring competition and industrial policies

What parts of Sino-European cooperation are most essential for European leaders? What is the future of an EU-China partnership, and which areas are most important?

Speakers: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

China’s investment in Africa: consequences for Europe

How is Chinese investment impacting Africa, and what could be the consequences for Europe?

Speakers: Solange Chatelard, Maria Demertzis, Alicia García-Herrero, Abraham Liu and Estelle Youssouffa Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 24, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Working Paper

China and the world trade organisation: towards a better fit

China’s participation in the WTO has been anything but smooth, as its self-proclaimed socialist market economy system has alienated its trading partners. The WTO needs to translate some of its implicit legal understanding into explicit treaty language, in order to retain its principles while accommodating China.

By: Petros C. Mavroidis and André Sapir Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 13, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Brussels Policy Dialogue: Insights for EU and Member States’ Climate Agenda

The event is a policy dialogue organised under the project, 'COP21: Results and Implications for Pathways and Policies for Low Emissions European Societies'.

Speakers: Petya Icheva, David Morales, Artur Runge-Metzger, Oliver Sartor, Marta Torres-Gunfaus, Vincent Van Steenberghe and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 7, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Too crowded bets on “7” for USDCNY could be dangerous

The Chinese yuan has been under pressure in recent days due to the slowing economy and, more importantly, the escalating trade war with the US. While the Peoples Bank of China has never said it will safeguard the dollar-yuan exchange rate against any particular level, many analysts have treated '7' as a magic number and heated debates have begun over whether the number is unbreakable.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 6, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The 'seven' ceiling: China's yuan in trade talks

Investors and the public have been looking at the renminbi with caution after the Trump administration threatened to increase duties on countries that intervene in the markets to devalue/undervalue their currency relative to the dollar. The fear is that China could weaponise its currency following the further increase in tariffs imposed by the United States in early May. What is the likelihood of this happening and what would be the consequences for the existing tensions with the United States, as well as for the global economy?

By: Inês Goncalves Raposo Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 3, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Expect a U-shape for China’s current account

As the US aims to reduce it's bilateral trade deficit, China's current-account surplus is back in the headlines. However, in reality China’s current-account surplus has significantly dropped since the 2007-08 global financial crisis. In this opinion piece, Alicia García-Herrero discusses whether we should expect a structural deficit or a renewed surplus for China's current-account.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 28, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

Europe – the global centre for excellent research

This report, requested by the European Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, analyses the EU’s potential to be a global centre of excellence for research as a driver of its future growth in a complex global S&T landscape, and how EU public resources can contribute to this.

By: Michael Baltensperger and Reinhilde Veugelers Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: May 22, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

India in 2024: Narendra Modi once more, but to what end?

Even with the recent economic slowdown, India still boasts Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2018. But beneath the veneer of impressive GDP expansion, uneasiness about India’s economic model clearly tempers enthusiasm.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Trinh Nguyen Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 17, 2019
Load more posts