Science Leader No More? China Challenges US Dominance

March for Science
A part of the worldwide March for Science in Bellingham, Washington, on April 22, 2017. (Image credit: Traci Hahn/Shutterstock)

The United States still leads the world in scientific research, at least in publishing the most biomedical studies in top-tier journals and spending the most money on research and development (R&D).

But that might not be the case for long, a group of scientists claimed in an opinion piece published today (June 15) in the journal JCI Insight.

America's dominance in the scientific world is slowly shrinking, the researchers found, largely because China has invested vast amounts of money in science over the past two decades. In 2015, China's biomedical research teams ranked No. 4 on the top 10 list for the total number of new discoveries published in six top-tier journals, the researchers said. In 2000, China didn't even make the top 10 on this list (coming in at 14), the researchers reported. [Best Supporting Role: 8 Celebs Who Promote Science]

What's more, China spent 75 percent of what the U.S. spent on total R&D in 2015, the researchers said. In 2000, China spent a mere 12 percent of what the U.S. spent, they found.

However, the future of research might be collaborative. More scientists from the U.S. and around the world are making new discoveries and advancements by working with international partners, the researchers said.

Study scoop

To get a better idea of the scientific world's leading countries, the researchers went through six top-tier journals (JAMALancet,the New England Journal of MedicineCellNature and Science) and four mid-tier journals from 2000 to 2015. The researchers also analyzed each country's R&D investments from that period.

Over the past 15 years, research funding in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and other European countries has stagnated, while China's funding has dramatically increased, the researchers found.

In 2015, the top 10 slots for publishing the greatest number of biomedical research papers in upper-tier journals went to the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, France/Japan, Switzerland, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and South Korea/Sweden/Italy.

Meanwhile, the top 15 countries that spent the most on biomedical R&D were the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, South Korea and Singapore.

These analyses show that South Korea and Singapore are also inching up the list, the researchers said.

The findings suggest that America could one day slip from its leadership position in the world of science and medical research, the study authors said.

"It's time for U.S. policy makers to reflect and decide whether the year-to-year uncertainty in [the] National Institutes of Health [NIH] budget and the proposed cuts are in our societal and national best interest," the opinion piece's senior researcher, Dr. Bishr Omary, the chief scientific officer of Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan, said in a statement.

America's current path might dissuade the next generation of bright American minds from pursuing science, Omary added.

"If we continue on the path we're on, it will be harder to maintain our lead and, even more importantly, we could be disenchanting the next generation of bright and passionate biomedical scientists who see a limited future in pursuing a scientist or physician-investigator career," he said. [Creative Genius: The World's Greatest Minds]

What comes next

The researchers performed the study because they wondered whether the flat NIH budget, at least up to 2015, would have repercussions on America's standing in the world, they said.

During their research, they found that while Chinese-born scientists who trained in the United States used to stay here to work, they are now going back to China after their education is over.

Moreover, Singapore is now recruiting top scientists from the U.S. and other countries, now that the country is spending more on R&D, the study's authors found.

However, the U.S. still has a competitive edge. The current 2017 federal fiscal budget has increased NIH funding, thanks to bipartisan congressional support, the researchers said. (The NIH is the largest federal provider for money funding medical and basic biomedical research.)

But current debates on the 2018 budget are concerning, as there are talks of cuts, the researchers said. In the meantime, Chinese R&D funding is expected to surpass U.S. funding by 2022, the authors said.

"Our analysis, albeit limited to a small number of representative journals, supports the importance of financial investment in research," Omary said. "I would still strongly encourage any child interested in science to pursue their dream and passion, but I hope that our current and future investment in NIH and other federal research support agencies will rise above any branch of government to help our next generation reach their potential and dreams."

The study was published online today (June 15) in the journal JCI Insight.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.