Skip to main content

China is catching up to the US on science and engineering spending, report finds

China is catching up to the US on science and engineering spending, report finds


America still leads the world, but Asian countries are catching up

Share this story

Many Asian countries, especially China, have been increasing their investment in scientific research and development at a much faster rate than the United States. That's according to the new Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 reportout today from the National Science Board — a group appointed by the president that sets policies for the National Science Foundation. The report details how Southeast, South, and East Asia now account for 40 percent of the world's expenditures in R&D. Asia's advancements are threatening America's leadership in the field, the NSB report argues, as the United States' commitment to science and engineering is wavering.

"International activities in R&D is a good thing. We support that," said Kelvin Droegemeier, vice chair of the National Science Board, during a press briefing on the report. "But the issue here is how the US is faring in the face of that competition."

The United States' commitment to science and engineering is wavering

The United States is still the global leader in science and engineering spending, accounting for 27 percent of the world's total R&D expenditures. However, China isn't far behind, making up 20 percent. "China is decisively the second largest R&D spending nation," Droegemeier said. And between 2003 and 2013, China's investments in the area have grown significantly. Each year, the country's spending on R&D increased by an average of 19.5 percent.

In the private sector, China has also gained a lot on the United States. Chinese industries devoted to high-tech manufacturing — such as the aerospace industry or the medical engineering industry, for instance — account for 27 percent of the global output. That's just slightly lower than the United States' share, 29 percent. And in the realm of science and engineering education, China is blowing the US away. Around 49 percent of all bachelor's degrees in these fields come from China, while 33 percent comes from the US. And between 2000 and 2012, the number of science and engineering degrees from China increased by 300 percent.

"We've got to continue speeding up and accelerating our investments."

The report also shows that US federal investment in both academic and business R&D has declined recently. And since 2008, the growth of federal R&D investment hasn't reached the same levels seen before the Great Recession when adjusted for inflation. The NSB points out that the funding drop is harmful because federal support is essential for helping universities and scientists gain new knowledge and create better technologies. And it's hard for people to invest in long-term projects when it's unclear how much funding they'll receive. "The lack of predictability in funding is more important than the actual amount," said Droegemeier.

The NSB issues the Indicators report every two years to assess the state of the United States' science and education spending. The report doesn't include any suggested policy changes, though Droegemeier said it's important that the United States continues expanding its investments in R&D, especially as other countries seem to be following us very closely.

"Obviously you look at those graphs, and China stands out very clearly," said Droegemeier. "We very much celebrate the emergence of other countries doing R&D. There's plenty of room for lots of players... It really is about US competitiveness and making sure we remain competitive. We've got to continue speeding up and accelerating our investments."