China joins US as top influencer in science

Heavy spending and hunt for talent rapidly raising China’s profile.

China now ranks as the most influential country in four of eight core scientific fields, tying with the U.S., according to the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

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., on the other hand, led the way in physics, environmental and earth sciences, basic life science and clinical medicine.

Despite winning Nobel Prizes for three straight years, Japan came in at fifth or sixth place in many fields.

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.

China is also rapidly catching up in physics, where the U.S. has long dominated. It is spending more than $6 billion to build the world’s largest particle accelerator, which could put it at the forefront of particle physics.

These advances were made on heavy spending by Beijing 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 American tally of $460 billion. It is making efforts to bring home Chinese researchers who trained abroad, and to connect with overseas talent through study abroad 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. With U.S. President Donald Trump planning a major spending cut for the sciences, China is expected to become an even larger player.

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