US-China tech war rising beside trade war


While most people around the world fixed their attention on January 15 at the signing in the White House of phase one of the trade agreement between China and the United States, few people paid attention to the news on the possibly more significant long-term indicator of national innovation capacity based on the science and technology (S&T) potential of countries. On the same day, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) submitted the 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators report to the US president and Congress.

The every even-numbered year Indicators prepared by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics within the NSF is part of the congressional mandate of the foundation. Also, The State of US Science and Engineering (The State Report), which highlights the key findings from the Indicators 2020 thematic reports, is delivered to the president and Congress on the same day.

Indicators provide information on the state of the US science and engineering (S&E) enterprise over time and within a global context. It is a factual and policy-neutral source of high quality US and international data; it does not offer policy options or make policy recommendations. The indicators presented in the report are quantitative representations relevant to the scope, quality and vitality of the S&E enterprise.

Indicators are subject to extensive review by experts within and outside the US government for accuracy, coverage and balance. It allows the authors to avoid judgment pitfalls and keep political neutrality. The reports is accepted as one of the most authoritative reports on the state of the global S&T.

The State Report is organized in six topical sections. The first section discusses education, including the performance of K to 12 students and S&E degrees awarded in the US, along with relevant international comparisons. The second section describes the demographic composition of the US S&E workforce and employment trends, including trends in the skilled technical workforce. The third section focuses on global research and development (R&D), where these are being done, their growth trajectories and intensity trend among counties. The fourth section talks about US R&D performance and funding. The fifth section examines trends in global S&T capabilities, including S&E research publications and R&D-intensive industry output. The sixth section focuses on innovation-related indicators, as well as US public attitudes toward S&T. The report ends with concluding remarks, as well as references and resources.

One of the key findings of The State Report is the declining dominance of the US in cutting edge S&E research.

Since the turn of the century, R&D expenditures have grown more rapidly in several Asian economies, particularly China, compared to more moderate growth in the US and the European Union. In 2017, the economics of East-Southeast and South Asia collectively accounted for 42 percent of global R&D expenditures, higher than the US’ 25 percent and the EU’s 20 percent. In the press briefing on the release of the Indicators and The State Reports, the chairman of the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering policy committee, Julia Philips, stated that preliminary data from 2019 suggested that China has already surpassed the US in R&D spending.  The data used in the 2020 indicators were cut-off as of 2017 because it takes several years to obtain and validate the dataset.

Another important finding is the region-specific specialization in subject matter, as well as the highlight on the importance of engineering, information and communications technology, and health-related technologies for innovation. For example, the S&E publication data show that the US and the EU each led in the production of biomedical sciences articles, while China surpassed each individually in the production of engineering articles and now produces twice as many engineering articles as the US.

In The State Report, the US continues to lead globally in S&E doctoral-level degree awards and production of highly cited research publications. At the same time, other nations, particularly China, are rapidly developing their S&E capacity. As a result, the US has seen its relative share of global S&T activity flatten or shrink, even as its absolute activity levels kept rising. As more countries around the world develop R&D and human capital infrastructure to sustain and compete in a knowledge-oriented economy, the US is playing a less dominant role in many areas of S&E activity. Although this report does not forecast future outcomes, the data show the evolution of the US in the global S&E enterprise.

It is an accepted fact today that S&T underpins a country’s national capacity, and the US preeminence since the end of World War 2 was anchored on its global leadership in the advancement, development and production of S&T. Now with other countries increasing their S&T investments and activities, the growth of S&T capabilities in other nations has outpaced that of the US’ along several dimensions, enabling some countries to converge with, or even to be poised to overtake, the US in developing specific areas of S&E expertise. The rise of other countries has resulted in a regional shift in S&T performance and capabilities from the US, Western Europe and Japan to other parts of the world, notably to China. The move of the US from uncontested leader to an influential leader as we learnt from State of Science & Engineering 2020 might turn out to be a more historical event than the trade deal between the US and China.

Dr. Henry Chan is an internationally recognized development economist based in Singapore. He is also a senior visiting research fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace and adjunct research fellow at the Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI). His primary research interest includes global economic development, Asean-China relations and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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