China is on track to outstrip the US in scientific research activity over the next two years, according to a Royal Society report.
In particular, China will overtake in terms of global share of published research articles in 2013, according to the report, Knowledge, Networks and Nations, published on Monday.
The report picks out China as leading the 'Bric' pack of emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India and others — in catching up with and, in the case of China, superseding traditional scientific leaders the US, Western Europe and Japan on various running tracks of the scientific landscape.
No historically dominant nation can afford to rest on its laurels if it wants to retain the competitive economic advantage that being a scientific leader brings. – Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, Royal Society
"The potential for China to match US output in terms of sheer numbers [of scientific papers] in the near to medium term is clear," the report (PDF) said. "China's rise is undoubtedly the most striking, but Brazil, India and South Korea are following fast behind, and are set to surpass the output of France and Japan by the start of next decade."
The China-US switchover will happen within two years if its publication rates hold at the same rate, the report said. If the rate is more erratic, it will take place by 2020. However, the report noted it will take some time before the international academic community cites scientific papers from emerging countries to the same extent they reference publications from traditional leaders.
Some of the emerging countries are already showing "leadership in specific [scientific] fields", the report found. It highlighted China in nanotechnology and Brazil in biofuels for their heavy investment in evolving technical areas.
In addition, China leapfrogged Japan to become the second-highest spender on research and development (R&D) in 2008, and will "chase" the US in the coming years, the Royal Society said.
"The increase in scientific research and collaboration, which can help us to find solutions to the global challenges we now face, is very welcome," Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, chair of the advisory group for the study, said in the report. "However, no historically dominant nation can afford to rest on its laurels if it wants to retain the competitive economic advantage that being a scientific leader brings."
The rise of China is the outward sign of state spending on R&D, which rose 20 percent every year from 1999 to reach $100bn (£63bn) by 2007, the report found. The 2007 figure is equal to 1.44 percent of the country's then-GDP, and the country has plans to see R&D rise to 2.5 percent by 2020.
Furthermore, during the recession when leading companies in the US and Europe reduced R&D investment by 5.1 and 2.6 percent respectively, Chinese companies boosted theirs by 40 percent.
China is on course to file ever more technology patents, as well, and is set to pass Japan in annual US patents by 2028, and South Korea by 2018, according to the report's authors. However, they added the caveat that neither publication nor patent figures give the full picture of scientific activity in a region.
"Publication and patent data are incomplete proxies for scientific output and scientific translation, the first being predominantly the output of academic science, and the other relating to the exploitation of ideas and concepts rather than necessarily being specifically scientific," the report said.
China is poised to overtake the US in scientific research activity, as it has with its Tianhe-1A supercomputer. Photo credit: Nvidia
China's rise has begun to be felt beyond basic technological manufacture. In September, IBM's president of deep computing, David Turek, predicted that, within a year, China would have more supercomputers in the Top500 ranking list than all European countries combined. In November, China became the nation with the world's most powerful supercomputer, according to the Top500 ranking methodologies, with Tianhe-1A swapping places with the US's Jaguar Cray XT5.
Furthermore, China announced plans in March to deploy the Chinese-developed 'Loongson' processor into a variety of Chinese supercomputers in 2011. The move is intended to wean the country off dependence on foreign technology, such as the Intel and Nvidia processors that powered the Tianhe-1A.
In the report's conclusion, the Royal Society said the world's body of top-tier science countries is about to get a lot larger.
"The league tables of science, so long dominated by the 'scientific superpowers' such as the USA, Western Europe and Japan, are in flux," the authors said."In the coming years, China, Brazil, India and South Korea are set to assert themselves even further, along with newly emergent scientific nations in the Middle East, south-east Asia, north and South Africa, and middle-ranking industrial countries such as Canada and Australia, as well as some of the smaller nations of Europe."