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China passes US as world's top researcher, showing its R&D might

Rise fueled by heavy spending and growing number of researchers

Researchers at Tsinghua Unigroup's research center in Beijing. China spent $554 billion on research and development in 2018, putting it second behind the U.S.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- China has outstripped the U.S. in putting out research papers in the natural sciences, data released Friday shows, further illustrating its emerging dominance in scientific investigation.

China now owns the top share of scientific papers at 19.9%, while the U.S. comes in second at 18.3%. These statistics are based on the number of peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals.

This comes as tensions mount between the world's two largest economies on trade and national security. The volume of research being produced by China will have considerable implications for its military and business activities.

Between 2016 and 2018, China published an average of 305,927 papers, topping the 281,487 papers released by the U.S. Germany ranks third at 67,041 papers, equating to a 4.4% share.

Japan's National Institute of Science and Technology Policy compiled the numbers using data provided by U.S.-based Clarivate Analytics. Because the publication of papers fluctuates from year to year, the numbers are presented as averages over three years.

The production of research papers is the most basic barometer of a country's research and development activity. The U.S. National Science Foundation had previously estimated that China has surpassed America in that tally.

The number of research papers turned out by China has jumped 18 times from the average for 1996 to 1998, and 3.6 times from the 2006-2008 period.

The quality of Chinese research papers is approaching that of the U.S. as well. Of the top 10% most-cited papers in 2017, the U.S. generated 24.7%, while China was a close second with a 22% share.

Looking at the top 1% of cited research papers, the U.S. was responsible for 29.3%, with China issuing 21.9%.

U.S. and Chinese papers differ in terms of areas of specialization. China boasts a high share of papers in materials science, chemistry, engineering, computer science and mathematics. The U.S., meanwhile, concentrates on clinical medicine and basic life sciences.

Driving China's rise in scientific contributions is its heavy investment in R&D, as well as the growing number of researchers. The country dedicated about $554 billion to gross domestic R&D spending in 2018 when adjusted for purchasing power, up 10% from the previous year.

Although the U.S. remains the top R&D nation, 2018 spending only rose 5% to about $581 billion.

Moreover, China's spending on universities has climbed conspicuously, multiplying 10.2 times between 2000 and 2018, while expenditures in the U.S. grew only 1.8 times during that period.

In 1982, China under the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping enshrined in the constitution the national objective of modernizing science and technology. It instituted a law in 1993 to promote the progress of science and technology.

Under China's tenth five-year plan, enacted between 2001 and 2005, it set a goal of raising the share of the gross domestic product dedicated to R&D to 1.5%, up from less than 1%. That threshold has since been upgraded, with the 2020 plan calling for lifting the share to 2.5% or more.

China is home to about 1.87 million researchers, exceeding the 1.43 million U.S. researchers to take the global crown. The number of Chinese nationals studying in the U.S. topped 300,000 for the first time five years ago, according to the U.S. Institute of International Education. For the 2018/2019 school year, the number students from China was nearly 370,000.

Meanwhile, Japan's standing in the output of scientific research has been on a decline. In second place two decades ago, it has slipped to fourth at 64,874 papers in 2017. When it comes to high-profile papers, Japan dropped to ninth place from fourth over the same span.

Japan has generally failed to meet R&D investment goals declared by the government, apart from the fiscal years 1996 through 2000, with its number of researchers remaining flat as well.

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