TOKYO China now ranks as the most influential country in four of eight core scientific fields, matching the U.S., according to the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
And with U.S. President Donald Trump planning a major spending cut for the sciences, China could well take the sole lead.
Dipping into the global database of scientific theses, the agency took the top 10% of the most-referenced studies in each field and determined the number of authors who were affiliated with the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, China or Japan. China ranked first in computer science, mathematics, materials science and engineering. The U.S. led the way in physics, environmental and earth sciences, basic life science and clinical medicine.
China's progress was especially pronounced in computer science. While the country accounted for only 3% of the most-referenced studies in 2000, the figure had surged to 21% by 2015. It has also had the fastest supercomputer in the world since 2013, and the two fastest in 2016.
The country is also rapidly catching up in physics, a field long dominated by the U.S. China is spending more than $6 billion to build the world's largest particle accelerator, which could put it at the forefront of particle physics.
The country's advances were made on the back of heavy government spending and an extensive campaign to attract talent. China's public and private spending on research was double Japan's in 2014, and is fast approaching the U.S. tally of $460 billion. The country is making efforts to bring home Chinese researchers who trained abroad, and to connect with overseas talent through overseas study programs and temporary placements.
"I was not expecting China to overtake the U.S. in many fields," said Yuko Ito at the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
Despite winning Nobel Prizes for three straight years, Japan came in at fifth or sixth place in many fields. Even in chemistry, where the country has excelled, Japan ranked fifth. Though 17 Japanese have won Nobel awards this century, most of their main studies were done over 30 years ago.