Here’s David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy parroting the standard (and careless) meme that there is a simple, straightforward link between scientific production and economic growth, while also making some dubious historical claims:
The report reveals that whereas in 1996, the U.S. produced approximately 290,000 scientific papers and China produced just over 25,000, by 2008, the United States had crept forward to just over 316,000 whereas China had increased to about 184,000. While estimates as to the speed China is catching up vary, the report concludes that a simple straight-line projection would put the Chinese ahead of the United States … and every other country in the world … in output by 2013.
How did China do it? Simple: They made it a priority. They increased research and development spending 20 percent a year or more every year since 1999 and now invest over $100 billion annually on scientific innovation. It is estimated that five years ago, the Chinese were already producing over 1.5 million new science and engineering graduates a year.
This data resonates on many levels. It suggests a profound shift in the world’s intellectual balance of power. This shift is one that is historically linked to the economic vitality and consequent political and military clout of the countries that lead. It suggests a much better future for the people of the world’s most populous country and knock-on benefits for their neighbors and trading partners. It suggests a relative decline in influence for the U.S. And, for the people of the Arab world, currently struggling with their own revolutions, it suggests the only true path to real reform, opportunity and empowerment.
It is an axiom of history that the silent revolutions — like those that periodically come in science and technology — are far more important than the noisier, bloodier and more publicized political kinds. That’s why these subtle indicators of their progress can be even more momentous than the round-the-clock coverage of upheaval that seems to be dominating our attentions at the moment.
How on Earth can you possibly specify the relative importance of the American and French revolutions over some (unnamed) silent revolutions? What does it “more important” even mean? At any rate, we’ve also known for at least five years that total graduates is a poor metric to use for both China and India. More recently, this article in the Wall Street Journal notes the generally poor quality of many Indian college graduates. There are broad trends in global science and they must be carefully examined and understood. This piece doesn’t help.
In any event, these numbers-focused discussions have a bad habit of devolving into narrow zero-sum game conversations focused on whether leading countries are losing or not. Because collaboration is an important part of science, and that it tends to resist international tensions, having more publications, more scientists, and more quality researchers will help everyone.