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China Closes Gap on U.S. Technology Lead

Ever since the US opened the door to Chinese and Indian students in the 1970s, hundreds of thousands have flocked to America to study engineering or science. Now these engineers are storming back to their home countries.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   01-12-2010

America remains the world's science and technology leader by minting a record number of patents and having “prolific inventors” in Silicon Valley and university and company labs, but China, especially, is gaining ground, the National Science Board said in its congressionally mandated biennial report on science and engineering.

American tech giant IBM Corp was issued 4,914 new US patents in 2009, well ahead   of second-place Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., which had 3,611.      

“The report is not just about where we stand, it's about where we are headed,” National Science Foundation director Arden Bement said at the White House while rolling out the 2010 report.

The report declared 2007 was the year China caught up to the US in the number of researchers and doctoral degrees it handed out in natural sciences and engineering. The US awarded 22,500 doctorates in natural sciences and engineering in 2007, but more than half of them were awarded to foreign nationals from countries like India, China and Russia.

Most new Ph.D.s stay in the US although a sizable number are now returning to their home countries after working in Silicon Valley and American firms for a few years. The report shows that 60% of temporary visa holders who earned doctorates in science in engineering in 1997 were still working in the US while the rest had opted to go back to the booming technology hubs in their own countries.

Asia fast narrowing the tech gap

The (National Science Board) report declared 2007 was the year China caught up to the US in the number of researchers and doctoral degrees it handed out in natural sciences and engineering.

“While the US is the largest R&D performing nation -- representing one-third of total world investment -- Asia has narrowed the gap, largely due to the sustained annual increases by China,” said Jose-Marie Griffiths, a member of the National Science Board.

The US accounted for nearly a third of USD 1.1 trillion spent on research and development globally in 2007. Overall spending on R&D in the US was USD 398 billion in 2008 -- up from USD 373 billion in 2007, or a growth rate of 6.7%.

For the 10 years ending in 2007, spending on research and development grew between 5% and 6% annually in Japan and the European Union. Similar spending in India, South Korea and Taiwan grew an average 9% to 10% a year over the same period. In China, it averaged more than 20%, noted the “Science and Engineering Indicators 2010” report.

US, EU and Japan ‘most inventive’

“China is now the third-largest R&D performer in the world behind the US and Japan and is moving ahead of Germany, France and the United Kingdom,” Griffiths said.
“China is now the third-largest R&D performer in the world behind the US and Japan and is moving ahead of Germany, France and the United Kingdom,” Griffiths said.

US patents awarded to foreign inventors offer a quick snapshot of inventive activity around the world. Inventors in the US, the European Union and Japan account for nearly 90% of the world’s high-value patents. US patenting by Chinese and Indian inventors remains modest. Despite China's strides, researchers in China accounted for only about 1% of US patents granted in 2008. China is still considered weak at innovation. Despite Chinese government efforts, inventive activity in China "appears elusive, at least as indicated by patents filed in a major Western market," the report noted. US-based inventors accounted for 49% of patents granted, down from 55% in 1995.

The report noted that the US has a comparatively higher-than-average share of patents in aerospace and the four health areas of pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical equipment and medical electronics, with Asia relatively weaker in those technologies.

US researchers published about a quarter of an estimated 760,000 research articles in peer-reviewed journals in 2008. Chinese researchers published 8% of the research articles, up from just 1% in 1988.

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