Aug 5, 2021 - Science

China's STEM Ph.D. push

Annual STEM Ph.D. graduates
Reproduced from CSET; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new report finds universities in China are producing more STEM doctoral students than those in the U.S. — and the gap is projected to only widen.

Why it matters: Creating pipelines of STEM-trained workers, including Ph.D.-level experts, is a national priority for both the U.S. and China as they compete in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology and other fields.

  • "[T]he gap in STEM Ph.D. production could undermine U.S. long-term economic and national security," the data brief from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University says.

What's happening: "The trends in China show their investments seem to be paying off in terms of the quantity and quality of graduates," says co-author Remco Zwetsloot of CSET.

By the numbers: The authors project Chinese universities will award more than 77,000 STEM Ph.D. degrees per year by 2025 versus about 40,000 in the U.S.

  • If international students studying at American institutions weren't included in the U.S. data, "Chinese STEM Ph.D. graduates would outnumber their U.S. counterparts more than 3-to-1."

Between the lines: The quality of doctoral education in China — which has been a concern in the past — also appears to be improving, according to the report.

  • About 45% of Ph.D.s awarded are from the country's 42 most elite institutions (36 of which are ranked in the top 500 universities in the world) versus about 20% from local or privately administered universities where standards tend to be lower.
  • The number of students entering Ph.D. programs at universities run by China's central ministries and agencies rose about 34% — from 59,039 to 79,031 — between 2015 and 2019.
  • Caveat: These Ph.D.s aren't STEM specific, but the authors note about 80% of Chinese doctoral graduates are in science and engineering disciplines.

What to watch: "If you squint past 2025, we don’t see a reason why we should expect a slow down if [China] continues investing at the scale they have been," Zwetsloot says.

  • "If this continues, there seems to be no way the U.S. can continue competing with China on the talent front without immigration reform. It is just a numbers game," he says, adding a key question is whether international Ph.D. graduates are able to stay and work in the U.S.
  • Historically, they have. But COVID backlogs, caps on green cards for international STEM graduates, and other factors could decrease international enrollment and lower stay rates among international graduates, Zwetsloot says.
  • Opponents to reform argue American workers lose out on jobs, but research suggests foreign-born STEM workers increase opportunities, salaries and innovation.

"The only thing the U.S. has that China doesn’t seem to replicate easily is the ability to attract and retain international talent whether through universities or through the labor market," Zwetsloot says.

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