A new data-rich report by the National Science Foundation (NSF) confirms China has overtaken the United States as the world’s leader in several key scientific measures, including the overall number of papers published and patents awarded. U.S. scientists also have serious competition from foreign researchers in certain important fields.
That loss of our previous leadership in these areas raises an important question for U.S. policymakers and the country’s research community, according to NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board (NSB). “Since across-the-board leadership in [science and engineering] is no longer a possibility, what then should our goals be?” NSB asks in its recent policy brief The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022.
NSB’s white paper hints at an answer by highlighting several factors it considers essential for maintaining a healthy U.S. research environment. The nation, it says, must sustain excellence in basic research; foster a scientific workforce more diverse in race, gender, and geography; and support high-quality precollege science and math education. The board also calls for forging closer ties between academia and industry, keeping borders open to promote international partnerships, and promoting ethical research practices.
Achieving those goals won’t be easy, says Julia Phillips, an applied physicist who chairs the NSB committee that oversees Science and Engineering Indicators and is now retired after a long career at AT&T Bell Laboratories and the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories.
“It would be the height of hubris to think that [the United States] would [continue to] lead in everything,” Phillips says. “So, I think the most important thing is for the United States to decide where it cannot be No. 2.”
At the top of her priorities is sustaining the federal government’s financial support of fundamental science. “If we lead in basic research, then we’re still in a really good position,” she says. But the government’s “record over the last decades does not give me a lot of cause for hope.” For example, Phillips says she is not optimistic that Congress will approve pending legislation that envisions a much larger NSF over the next 5 years, or a 2022 appropriations bill that would give NSF a lot more money right away.
The United States trailed China in contributing to the growth in global research spending over the past 2 decades – China 29% United States 23% South Korea& Japan 9% Other Asia 7% Other 14% European Union 17%.
This falling behind is nowhere more obvious, and concerning, than in the area of nuclear, both nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
The world’s first pebble bed reactor, Unit 1 of China’s Shidaowan nuclear power plant, has started feeding power to the grid in Shandong province, while construction on Unit 2 continues. The PBR units are high-temperature gas-cooled reactors with a 200-megawatt generation capacity and a core made of graphite pebbles filled with a special type of fuel.
The United States is going to build a pebble bed reactor as well, by X-energy, which should come online somewhere around 2029.
The China National Nuclear Corporation has started building its first small modular reactor (SMR) on the island province of Hainan, at its Changjiang nuclear power plant (at bottom of map). China’s own design, the Linglong One will be about 125 MW, it will take about 5 years to build, and it will generate about a billion kWh/year.
Again, the United States is going to build an SMR as well, by NuScale, which should come online somewhere around 2029.
China has correctly decided to diversify its nuclear sector as a way to attain real energy security and to achieve any reasonable level of decarbonization, as suggested by all leading climate scientists from James Hansen on down. China has 53 nuclear reactors in operation, 18 under construction, and another 120 planned by 2035 – mostly big ones, not just small modulars – and are well on the way to achieving that number. They know that nuclear is the best energy source to replace coal and they have a lot of coal.
China now has the largest manufacturing base in the world, including super-large forges necessary for expanding nuclear power. China has also established the first national institute dedicated to nuclear science. They are not likely to let that scientific community wither like we have done here.
Completely separate from nuclear power, is nuclear weapons. China spends more on defense than any other country except the United States. The Pentagon estimates that China’s nuclear arsenal will quadruple by 2030. While still much smaller than ours, it will be much more modern and flexible. And they won’t stop until they completely surpass the United States and Russia, probably by mid-century.
China is only the third country to put a man in space and to fly a spacecraft around the moon, landed a robotic sampler and return mission on the lunar surface, and have a spacecraft orbiting Mars. China will soon have an orbiting space station.
China certainly has one of the top cyber-intelligence agencies. China is investing more in ultra-high voltage transmission lines and smart grid technologies than everyone in the world. They also built the world’s longest bridge of any type and have many bridges in the top tier.
This is the kind of initiative that America showed in the 20th Century and that led to our becoming the greatest nation on Earth. We won WWII. We won the Cold War. We knew that investments in infrastructure, science and engineering pay off bigtime, injecting about 3 or 4 dollars into the economy for every dollar spent.
But we forgot about all that looking at silly cat pictures on Instagram and investing in the illusion of bitcoin.
So…what happens now?