American higher education is touted as the world’s envy, but a new report says the United States and other Western countries have fallen dangerously behind China in research that results in leading-edge technology.
The report, funded by the U.S. State Department, examined research output in defense, space, robotics, energy, the environment, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, advanced materials and key quantum technology.
In most of those fields, China ruled.
“It’s the leading country in 37 of the 44 technologies evaluated, often producing more than five times as much high-impact research as its closest competitor,” the report’s authors wrote. “This means that only seven of the 44 analyzed technologies are currently led by a democratic country, and that country in all instances is the U.S.”
Those seven areas are high-performance computing, advanced integrated circuit design and fabrication, natural language processing (such as speech and text recognition and analysis), quantum computing, vaccines and medical countermeasures, small satellites and space launch systems.
Some U.S. campuses manage “to shine through,” the report said. But many other campuses often seen as powerhouses received little if any mention in the 84-page report — among them, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Officials at both schools could not say why the study released Thursday largely looked past their campuses. But they and counterparts in other U.S. cities have long worried about the growing global gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) investment and what it means for innovation — long seen as a key U.S. strength.
“We’ve lost our advantage because of the growth primarily of countries like China,” said James Martin, Pitt vice chancellor for STEM research and innovation. “They have a much larger investment in STEM and you can just look at the amount of STEM output, the sheer numbers.”
Since 1980, the U.S. share of global STEM graduates has fallen from 29% to 11%. China in that same period grew from 1% to 21%
If America is to produce the volume and diversity of future STEM talent needed, Martin said, “We’ve got to do a better job of creating access.”
That was the message last week at Carnegie Mellon as it and the Norman and Ruth Rales Foundation announced the CMU Rales Fellows program. The $150 million program will ultimately provide nearly 90 students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds tuition-free graduate study each year.
With the need for science and engineering workers expected to grow nearly twice as fast as the overall job market, widening the talent pipeline in STEM “has never been more important to our nation’s economic growth, global competitiveness and national security,” Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian said.
Already, the report said technology underpins much of the economy and everyday life in ways that include everything from the processing speed of smartphones to banking and shopping security, the environment and medicine.
Technology also can create an edge on the battlefield and in the intelligence world.
The report noted particular growth by China in areas with military and intelligence applications, including advanced aircraft engines (including hypersonics), future intelligence capability, artificial intelligence and drones.
The notion that a country can decide on its own terms how to make gains in a technological area doesn’t necessarily hold.
“A nation used to be able to concern itself more with research, resource extraction and manufacturing energies in an area of strength and less with the global supply chain’s ability to provide steady supplies,” the report said.
“That world has gone, swept away by covid-19, geopolitics and changes in global supply chains,” the report added. “Countries have also shown a willingness to withhold supplies of critical materials as a weapon of economic coercion, and an energy crisis is gripping much of the world as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
To address the gap, the report said governments need to work “collaboratively and individually to catch up to China and, more broadly, they must pay greater attention to the world’s center of technological innovation and strategic competition: the Indo-Pacific.”
Accompanying the report is the online ‘Critical Technology Tracker.”
It found that in some areas all of the world’s top 10 research institutions are in China. Combined, they generated nine times more high-impact research papers than the second-ranked country. Usually, that was the United States.
In space-related technologies, described in the report as an important area where China excels, gains in nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles caught many in the United States by surprise in 2021, the authors said.
Had the tracker been in use earlier, they said, it would have noted that over the past five years, 48% of high-impact research papers on advanced aircraft engines, including hypersonics, were coming from China.
“Such technological advances would have been less surprising,” the report stated.
The study examined research publication data from 2018 to 2022, downloaded from the Web of Science Core Collection database. It relied on publicly available data on paid subscription platforms, but did not include classified research conducted by defense and other agencies or work done by private companies that is not published.
The report said the collective technological strength of democratic countries should not be overlooked. It also suggested China is quickly consolidating its strength.
“Our research reveals that China has built the foundations to position itself as the world’s leading science and technology superpower by establishing a sometimes stunning lead in high-impact research across the majority of critical and emerging technology domains,” the report said.