Thirty years ago in December, the modern exchange of scholars between the US and China began. Since then, Chinese academics have become the most prolific global contributors to publications in physical sciences, engineering and maths. Recent attempts by the US to curtail academic collaboration are unlikely to change this trend.
For decades, China’s growth was driven by shifting workers from agriculture to manufacturing. As the country started to approach the so-called Lewis turning point, when such shifts no longer raise overall productivity, the government made an increasingly concerted effort to build the scientific base to provide another vector for growth. The results of those efforts are showing up in both the rankings of Chinese universities (11 of the top 100 globally) and in scholarly output.
Qingnan Xie of Nanjing University of Science & Technology and Richard Freeman of Harvard University have studied China’s contribution to global scientific output. They document a rapid expansion between 2000 and 2016, as the Chinese share of global publications in physical sciences, engineering and maths quadrupled. By 2016, the Chinese share exceeded that of the US.
Furthermore, the authors argue that these metrics — which are based on the addresses of the authors — understate China’s impact. The data doesn’t count papers written by Chinese researchers located in other countries with addresses outside China and exclude most papers written in Chinese publications. The researchers adjusted for both factors and conclude that Chinese academics now account for more than one-third of global publications in these scientific fields.
The quality of Chinese research is also improving, though it currently remains below that of US academics. A recent analysis suggests that, measured not just by numbers of papers but also by citations from other academics, Chinese scholars could become the global leaders in the near future. Similarly, Xie and Freeman examine authorship of publications in Nature and Science, arguably the two most prestigious scientific journals. They find that in 2016, 20 per cent of the authors were Chinese — more than twice the share in 2000.
At the same time, this dramatic expansion in scientific scholarship has raised serious concerns, including whether the Chinese government exerts excessive influence over both Chinese students and professors in the US. A related concern is whether the deep ties between Chinese and US academics facilitates too much technology transfer and even academic espionage.
Perhaps partly in response to these concerns, the US government has recently begun tightening the rules for obtaining study or work visas. The scientific community has reacted with alarm, arguing that the scientific process requires open collaboration and that individual episodes of espionage or other inappropriate behaviour should be dealt with through criminal prosecution or academic expulsion rather than blanket restrictions.
Although many Chinese students seem undeterred by the visa restrictions, over time the impact is likely to deter foreign study at US universities. Students from China represent almost a third of the foreign students at US institutions, and some American colleges are already feeling the financial impact of diminished overall foreign interest.
Whatever the other costs or benefits of the restrictions, and I believe there are more of the former than of the latter, they seem unlikely to alter in any significant way the global rise of China as an academic power. We may not want to admit it yet, but the rise of China to the top ranks of global scientific achievement is now a historical fact.
Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a vice-chairman of investment banking at Lazard. He was director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010, and director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008