China is a scientific rocket, and the global research community is climbing aboard.
Every 2 years the National Science Foundation releases a wealth of data on the state of the global scientific enterprise. And this year's volume of Science and Engineering Indicators makes clear how China's decade-long investment in research has affected all segments of that enterprise, including higher education, journals, and high-tech industries.
"China is achieving a dramatic amount of synergy by increasing its investment in science and engineering education, in research, and in infrastructure, which is attracting scientists from all over the world," NSF Director Arden Bement said this morning at a rollout of the 2010 Indicators. "The number of collaborations is dramatically increasing, and in terms of the collaborations we support, China is far and away the country of choice for U.S. scientists." For many metrics, Bement added, "the slope of the line is accelerating rather than decelerating."
Faced with that challenge, the United States and Europe are not idly standing by. The new report documents the continuing investment in science by Western governments. But the gap between them and Asian nations has closed to the point where overall research spending, for example, is spread fairly evenly among the three regions. The number of researchers is also a dead heat, although the United States and Europe are still comfortably ahead on a per-capita basis. And Chinese scientists rank behind only their U.S. counterparts on number of publications, although they are heavily skewed toward the natural sciences compared with a more even distribution by U.S. authors across disciplines.
Spending more on science isn't necessarily the right response to the growth of Chinese science, according to Steven Beering, chair of the National Science Board, which officially issues indicators. "Money isn't the answer," he said. "The answer is more partnerships, between industry, academia, and the government. And we need to think globally."