Chinese universities have surpassed U.S. institutions in the production of STEM PhDs, and based on current trends, it appears that gap will only 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.
According to the report, U.S. universities awarded twice as many doctorates in STEM fields (18,289) as Chinese universities (9,038) in 2000. But by 2007, the order had flipped 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 steadily 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 United States (39,959).
Comparisons of STEM doctorates are complicated by the basic question of 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. But because China classifies fields of study differently, the report used four academic fields as defined by China’s Ministry of Education: science, engineering, agriculture, and medicine.
The health sciences present a particular classification problem because of 1) the wide range of disciplines covered by that label and 2) differences in how medical practitioners are credentialed in China and the United States. Nonetheless, even after removing health science from the number of STEM PhDs, China still maintains its lead over the U. S. in PhD production.
Whether to include the social sciences in the definition of STEM PhDs introduces another complexity. Because the social sciences are more popular as a concentration in the U. S. than in China, including them in the definition allows the U.S. to maintain its lead over China in STEM doctorates through 2019. However, the report predicts that advantage will disappear by 2025, with Chinese universities projected to produce about 12,000 more STEM doctorates than U.S. universities even when social sciences are counted.
Do the Results Differ If We Consider Domestic vs. International Students
According to the report, from 2010-2019, international students constituted about 42% of STEM PhDs in the U.S., “with especially high shares in computer science and engineering.” By contrast, the vast majority of PhDs graduating from Chinese universities are Chinese nationals. International students accounted for only about 7% of all doctoral enrollments in China.
That difference is testimony to the fact that U.S. universities are one of our nation’s best assets for talent attraction and creation. A large proportion of international PhD graduates – at least 75% by most estimates – remain in the United States after completing their degrees. However, the question remains as to whether the U.S. can sustain this advantage in light of multiple obstacles – the coronavirus pandemic, increased competitiveness for international students from other countries and politically fraught immigration policies.
And it’s a question that matters. If STEM doctorates were limited to domestic U.S. students only, the number of annual STEM PhD graduates in China would now be more than three times as high as that of U.S. production.
How About the Quality of Chinese Doctorates?
Another question is whether China’s increase in STEM doctorates derives from high-quality universities or is mostly attributable to institutions of lesser standing. 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 high-quality universities.” About 45% of Chinese PhDs graduate from what are termed Double First Class (A) universities—the country’s most elite educational institutions; 80% of graduates come from universities administered by central ministries rather than locally or privately administered institutions, which tend to be of lower quality.
In addition, most of China’s growth in overall PhD enrollment comes from universities in the higher-quality tiers. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of students entering PhD programs at universities run by central ministries and agencies rose approximately 34%. And that group of universities accounted for about 65% of the total increase in first-time PhD enrollments across China during that period.
The report did not breakdown STEM doctorate productivity by quality or reputation of U.S. universities.
What Are the Implications?
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.” Given that Chinese universities are graduating about three STEM PhDs for every two graduated in the U.S. each year, the fear is that the U.S. will lose its advantages in global competitiveness to China.
But not all experts agree that the numbers tell the whole story. The intellectual freedom to investigate all types of questions is still greater at U.S. institutions than at those in China. And the importance of a newly minted PhD must ultimately be judged on the basis of the scientific discoveries and applied technology for which he or she is responsible.
On this measure, it’s not clear that the U.S. suffers by comparison to its Chinese competitors. As Zvi Galil, former president of Tel Aviv University and Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, told me, “China’s large increase in PhD production was anticipated, given its significant investment in higher education. Therefore, the U.S. must do its utmost to maintain its top position for the quality of its science.”