Data, released today by NSF, illustrate quantitatively what many have been feeling over the last 10 years - that China is surging in the world of scientific research. Looking at the rate of change of many indicators, China will very soon overtake the U.S.
This has been interpreted in gloomy terms as a "worrisome trend showing erosion of U.S. competitiveness" and as indicating that the "U.S. dominance in science is at risk".
I would look at things a different way. I would welcome China to the club of scientific superpowers, applaud their progress over the last decade (which does not seem to have been mirrored by India, which arguably could have done as well), and try to see what we can learn from it.
Well, the U.S., to its credit, has lead the world in welcoming qualified foreigners to populate its research universities and fuel the creative technological drive the future always requires. But since time immemorial (meaning, at least since I was first in the States in '85-'89!) we have bemoaned the number of homegrown graduate students in the sciences. Local kids just don't seem to get motivated and curious about finding things out.
Compare this with the sentiment embodied in the following quote in Time Magazine from Energy Secretary Chu on a trip to Beijing: "In the U.S., rock stars and sports stars are the glamour people. In China, it's scholars. Here, Nobel laureates are the equivalent of Britney Spears." If this is truly the case, look forward to a fair fraction of the best and brightest of the youth of the presently 1.3 billion Chinese keenly dedicating their creative abilities to science.
And if, as is likely, the U.S. cohort remains mired in banker/rock-star/NFL fantasyland then China will quickly swamp the science stats.
How, then, will the U.S. remain at the table? Maybe the only way will be to rapidly further step up immigration of qualified talent from China? Rapid immigration isn't impossible - just look at Vancouver which, in the blink of an eyelid, has quickly become 30% Chinese, albeit not uniquely of the highly-qualified variety. But whether such an influx happens in the U.S. may well depend on whether we will continue have the means to attract the brightest over here. If not......