Pulling ahead?
China has rapidly increased its R&D spending over the past several years. (EU-25 = European Union)

OECD, Main Science and Technology Indicators (various years).

Vying for the R&D Edge

China has arrived as a scientific powerhouse. Or has it? There's no question that the country is pouring money into research. But whether it should be ranked third--behind only the United States and Japan--and the absolute size of that investment is much harder to assess. That's just one of many points made by the latest compendium of international trends in science issued today by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSF's biennial Science and Engineering Indicators has become a must-read for science policy analysts, and the 2006 edition offers a wealth of material covering everything from academic research spending to zoo attendance. The report's opening chapter, for example, provides evidence of how "the strategic thinking of government and the private sector in Asia have contributed to a boom" in the high-technology manufacturing sector, notes NSF's Rolf Lehming, who oversees the volume.

"It's a changed world," says Steven Beering, former president of Purdue University and a member of the presidentially appointed National Science Board, which sets policy for the foundation and issues the report. And one reason for the change is the free flow of knowledge across borders. "We have been splendid teachers, and the foreign students we've trained have gone back home and are excelling," Beering says.

The significance of the worldwide trends noted in the report, of course, rests heavily on the credibility of available figures. And the report is refreshingly self-critical about some of its assumptions. One essay points to the danger of comparing research expenditures around the world and raises questions about one common metric called purchasing power parity (PPP). "It is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of PPPs for some countries, most notably China," it notes. "Although PPP estimates for [industrialized] countries are quite reliable, PPP estimates for developing countries are often rough approximations." In particular, China's expenditures, reported at $84 billion in 2003, could be inflated by a factor of four or five, it adds.

Another essay points to "unmeasured R&D." It reminds readers that some sectors--businesses with fewer than five employees, for example--go unreported and that data from others, notably research done by non-profits and state and local governments, are extrapolated from surveys nearly a decade old.

A companion piece to the Indicators report offers several suggestions for improving U.S. science and math education, including better pay for teachers and greater reliance on tests that measure both conceptual knowledge and problem-solving skills. The science board is considering the launch of a commission to tackle the subject.

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