If China dominates science, should the world worry?
A hundred years ago a wave of student protests broke over China’s great cities. Desperate to reverse a century of decline, the leaders of the May Fourth Movement wanted to jettison Confucianism and import the dynamism of the West. The creation of a modern China would come about, they argued, by recruiting “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy”.
Today the country that the May Fourth students helped shape is more than ever consumed by the pursuit of national greatness. China’s landing of a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon on January 3rd, a first for any country, was a mark of its soaring ambition.
There is no doubting Mr Xi’s determination. Modern science depends on money, institutions and oodles of brainpower. Partly because its government can marshal all three, China is hurtling up the rankings of scientific achievement, as our investigations show. It has spent many billions of dollars on machines to detect dark matter and neutrinos, and on institutes galore that delve into everything from genomics and quantum communications to renewable energy and advanced materials. An analysis of 17.2m papers in 2013-18, by Nikkei, a Japanese publisher, and Elsevier, a scientific publisher, found that more came from China than from any other country in 23 of the 30 busiest fields, such as sodium-ion batteries and neuron-activation analysis. The quality of American research has remained higher, but China has been catching up, accounting for 11% of the most influential papers in 2014-16.