China Surges Ahead of U.S. in STEM PhDs Numbers
Graduation ceremony of a university in Nanjing. (PHOTO: VCG)
By QI Liming
Chinese universities have surpassed U.S. institutions in the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) PhDs being produced. Based on current trends, it appears that gap will grow wider in the years to come. Those are two of the main conclusions in a just-released report by Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET).
STEM PhDs fields
Comparisons of STEM doctorates are complicated, because of the basic question — what fields are deemed to be STEM disciplines? The Georgetown report includes students earning research-oriented doctoral degrees in seven academic fields at U.S. institutions: life sciences, geosciences, mathematics and statistics, computer science, physical sciences, engineering, and medical sciences. Whereas because China classifies fields of study differently, the report used four academic fields as defined by China's Ministry of Education: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The health sciences present a particular classification problem because of the two following aspects:
1) the wide range of disciplines covered by that label
2) differences in how medical practitioners are credentialed in China and the U.S.
Nonetheless, even after removing health sciences from the number of STEM PhDs, China still maintains its lead over the U.S. in producing PhDs.
Quantity of STEM PhDs in China and the U.S.
According to the report, U.S. universities awarded twice as many doctorates in STEM fields (18,289) as that ofChinese universities (9,038) in 2000. However by 2007, the order had been reversed and China began outpacing U.S. universities. In 2010, Chinese universities graduated 34,801 STEM doctorates compared to 26,076 by American universities.
Over the last decade, China has increased its lead. In 2019, Chinese universities produced 49,498 PhDs in STEM fields, while U.S. universities produced 33,759. Based on current enrollment patterns, the report projects that by 2025, China's yearly STEM PhD graduates (77,179) will nearly double those in the U.S (39,959).
Quality of STEM PhDs in China and the U.S.
In addition to the quantity of increased STEM PhDs in China, these STEM doctorates are also earned at elite universities. The report concludes that, "The quality of doctoral education in China has risen in recent years, and that much of China's current PhD growth comes from elite universities." About 45 percent of Chinese PhDs graduate from what are termed first-class universities and disciplines of the world — the country's most elite educational institutions; 80 percent of graduates come from universities administered by central ministries rather than locally or privately administered institutions.
Besides, most of China's growth in overall PhD enrollment comes from universities in the elite tiers.
Between 2015 and 2019, the number of students entering PhD programs at universities run by central ministries and agencies rose approximately 34 percent. And that group of universities accounted for about 65 percent of the total increase in first time PhD enrollments across China during that period.
Because of the increasing economic and security importance of fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, engineering and biotechnology, the report concludes that global "STEM talent is becoming an increasingly critical national asset."
Comments from experts and media
According to Forbes, Michael T. Nietzel, the president of Missouri State University, comments that China will gain momentum in global competitiveness with more STEM PhDs graduating each year.
Zvi Galil, former dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech agrees with Nietzel, saying, "China's large increase in PhD production was anticipated, given its significant investment in higher education."
The Asia Times says China is supported by a government of engineers. Most likely, when it comes to nation-building, the education data will continue to evolve in its favor.
As Jack Corrigan, one of the authors of this report and research analyst at CSET, told the Voice of America, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing technology, such as synthetic biology, will reshape the landscape of a country's economy and security. So if countries are to compete in these emerging industries, they must develop a strong science and engineering talent pool.
"Although PhD holders are a very small part of the workforce, they are a significant part. They lead and drive many R&D efforts in these areas, and we count on them to train the next generation of scientists, technologists, and entrepreneurs. The number of science and engineering PhDs a country has is an indicator of the strength of its talent base and its prospects of being a pioneer in emerging technologies, " said Corrigan.