Should the US fear rising number of STEM PhDs in China?

Yolanda Sharma

The University Times

Concern is growing in some quarters in the United States that China is rapidly catching up with the number of PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) it produces compared to the US, which could have an impact on the US lead in certain sectors of research that contribute to national security.

But others say that while PhD-level expertise is a national priority for both the US and China, overly focusing on numbers does not necessarily indicate a country’s research prowess on a global level.

A new report by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) in the US released in August said that currently Chinese universities graduate roughly three STEM PhDs for every two graduated by US universities each year. By 2025, the report predicts that China will produce roughly twice as many STEM PhDs as the US.

“Based on current enrolment patterns, we project that by 2025 Chinese universities will produce more than 77,000 STEM PhD graduates per year compared to approximately 40,000 in the United States. If international students are excluded from the US count, Chinese STEM PhD graduates would outnumber their US counterparts more than three to one,” the report said.

“Given the scale of China’s investments in higher education and the high-stakes technology competition between the United States and China, the gap in STEM PhD production could undermine US long-term economic and national security,” it adds, while acknowledging that the number of doctoral graduates a country produces is just one indicator of future competitiveness in STEM fields.

Jack Corrigan, one of the report’s authors, told University World News: “We are living in a world where a country’s economic and national security is increasingly dependent on its ability to develop and utilise advanced technology in areas like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, quantum computing – all of the big emerging technologies.

“And in order to develop and deploy those technologies, countries need to have access to a large, knowledgeable and well-trained pool of STEM talent.

“PhDs, which we specifically focus on in this paper, represent a small but important part of that workforce. They’re responsible for leading a lot of the research and development [R&D] pushing forward these different fields of technology,” he said.

Corrigan explained that a country “isn’t necessarily going to become a dominant player in a particular field of technology simply by virtue of having more STEM PhDs; there are a lot of economic factors that play into political considerations that affect the vibrancy of a country’s R&D ecosystem. But looking specifically through this talent lens, you do need a certain number of STEM PhDs to keep the wheels of innovation turning.”

China’s PhD growth trajectory

China has been concentrating on STEM PhDs for more than two decades.

The report notes that between 2003 and 2007, the Chinese government set up more than 1,300 new PhD programmes at dozens of institutions that previously did not offer doctoral programmes. During that period, the number of annual STEM PhD graduates in China more than doubled.

Growth in the number of PhDs subsequently slowed as the Chinese government refocused its efforts on improving the quality of higher education, but state-sponsored higher education has expanded again in recent years, with spending on higher education almost doubling between 2012 and 2021, fuelling an increase in new PhD enrolments.

Between 2016 and 2019, the number of students entering STEM doctoral programmes at Chinese universities increased nearly 40%, from 59,670 to 83,134.

“Pouring money into the educational system and training more people in STEM are one component of China’s national self-strengthening strategy, which in some parts of the American establishment is seen as a threat to American national security,” said David Zweig, professor emeritus at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and an expert on Chinese talent.

“China has the advantage of numbers. But numbers don’t necessarily mean quality,” Zweig told University World News. Its progress on PhDs “shows that China is certainly competitive, but it’s not a sign that China is surpassing the hegemon [the US]”, he added, describing raw numbers as being like “cannon fodder” in the battle for hegemony.

“Having an ample quantity of talented individuals is a necessary but not sufficient determinant of innovative capability,” said Denis Simon, senior advisor on China to the president of Duke University and a former executive vice-chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China.

He added that success in innovation and technology “also depended on the overall openness of the research environment”; and a professional class of R&D managers “who can stimulate creative people as well as evaluate project risk and potential”.

Numbers vs quality

The CSET report notes that it is hard to judge the extent to which Chinese PhD programmes are producing graduates with advanced knowledge and skills, although China-based authors are producing an increasingly large share of top STEM publications – defined as the top 1% of cited articles – and are already exceeding US-based authors in certain disciplines, including several subfields of artificial intelligence.

It notes that most of the recent and rapid growth in Chinese PhD enrolments comes from universities within the higher quality tiers.

In recent years, a little under half of all Chinese PhD graduates have come from China’s top-level “Double First Class” universities, while about 80% come from universities administered by national ministries. Only about 20% come from locally or privately administered universities, whose average quality is lower, according to the report.

“Between 2015 and 2019, the number of students entering PhD programmes at universities run by central ministries and agencies rose approximately 34%, from 59,039 to 79,031. This group of universities accounted for roughly 65% of the total increase in first-time PhD enrolments across China during that period,” the report said.

Simon saw the number of high-quality STEM PhDs as coming from a much narrower band of top universities in China.

“While China’s numbers are growing rapidly in terms of the production of high-level talent, we need to be careful about assuming that the output in quality terms of new STEM graduates from Chinese universities is entirely homogenous. After the top 15-20 universities, the quality of doctoral programmes falls off precipitously,” he told University World News.

“My sense is that the PhD STEM graduates trained within China’s top universities are really high calibre as researchers,” Simon noted. “The lingering issue is whether these days the best students stay in China rather than going overseas for training.”

“We have entered a period in the world economy defined by the emergence of a war for talent. Both China and the US are at the centre of that war,” he said, adding: “The situation only promises to get worse as the emphasis on innovation and technological progress grows.”

International students

The CSET report noted that “a key strategic advantage” of the US higher education system is its ability to attract international talent.

Multiple studies and data sources suggest that at least 75% of STEM PhD graduates have historically stayed in the US for at least 10 years. By comparison, China attracts relatively few international students, and it is unclear how many international PhD graduates from Chinese universities stay in China upon graduation, according to the report.

International students made up about 42% of STEM PhD graduates in the US between 2010 and 2019, with especially high shares in computer science and engineering.

By contrast, the vast majority of PhDs graduating from Chinese universities are Chinese nationals. According to Chinese Ministry of Education data, international students accounted for only about 7% of doctoral enrolments in China in 2018, and the share was lower in previous years.

“If you’re a foreign student in the US, you’re really much more motivated than a [Chinese] mainland student going into a mainland programme,” said Zweig.

Simon said: “Students from abroad bring new ideas, new perspectives and new approaches into the lab environment. Their unique experiences working on diverse problems helps to open up existing ways of tackling problems. What they may lack in formal methodology training, they more than make up for in terms of work ethic and desire for high levels of achievement.

“One key way we [in the US] have made up for our quantitative deficiencies in the past is with our immigration policies – students coming from East, Southeast and South Asia have filled many of our gaps in computer science and engineering, life sciences and new materials.”

However, Simon warned, “many unresolved problems persist because US immigration policy is in chaos, compounded by new national security concerns about students and scholars from China”.

“Clearly, in an age of accelerating innovation and compressed product life cycles, talent availability and utilisation are key determinants of success and progress for all countries,” said Simon.

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