Science Superpowers

On his New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos writes about the future of scientific achievement and why America is going to need to work hard to keep up with China in this arena in coming years:

American policymakers have begun to notice the relative decline of American strength in science and engineering. U.S. students currently rank twenty-first in science and twenty-fifth in math, near the bottom of the developed world, and the Obama Administration has launched a program called Educate to Innovate, which is designed to jumpstart improvements. Without being alarmist, I want to mention a few facts about China that serve to reinforce how indispensable this campaign is to the future of American competitiveness.

China, for instance, has had a fitful relationship with science. Chairman Mao was wary of the scientific “élite,” and he preached the power of “man over weapons.” But, after Chinese foot soldiers confronted American tanks in Korea, leaders reconsidered, and in 1955 they resolved to build a nuclear weapon—an absurdly audacious target, considering that China didn’t know how to mine uranium, and its people were as poor as citizens of sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the nuclear race galvanized the country—science funding soared six hundred per cent in one year—and, by 1964, China had the bomb—a feat that “offers a caution to those who doubt the commitment of China’s leaders to redress their country’s weakness at all costs,” according to Evan Feigenbaum, an Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of “China’s Techno-Warriors.” By the eighties, however, momentum was gone, and Chinese science was in ruins. The 863 Program, which I wrote about in December, sought to recapture the spirit of the atomic race and prepare China for what Chinese-born scientist Qian Xuesen predicted would be the era of “intellectual warfare.”

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