US and China battle for supremacy in hot research areas

Web of Science data show how the science superpowers are positioned as political debate rages over their future relationship  

August 27, 2020
Scientist with model of coronavirus
Source: Getty

Scientific breakthroughs have always been used by large nations to make statements to the rest of the world, with the space race between the US and Soviet Union being arguably the most famous example.

And there is ample evidence of this device being used again in an era of heightened nationalism, with today’s science superpowers, the US and China, both eager to show they are furthest along in developing a vaccine for Covid-19.

But beyond remedies for the pandemic, are there other areas in which the two countries are seeking to show they are on the cusp of major advances in science and technology?

From a new data analysis on clusters of scientific work that are at the forefront of citation activity, it is clear there are several prominent topics where the US and China could be described as vying for supremacy.

The data, from Clarivate’s Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), analyses country and institutional contributions to what it terms “research fronts”, clusters of papers in the Web of Science database that have common themes identified through their citation connections.      

In the 14 Web of Science research fronts underpinned over the past five years by the highest number of “core” papers – highly cited articles that form the basis of these clusters – the US and China dominate, but the nation taking a more prominent role in each area differs according to the main discipline involved.

China appears to take the lead in areas more closely related to engineering, materials science and chemistry, with topics related to renewable energy highly prominent. For instance, in one research front related to solar-cell technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) appears on more than a fifth of papers.

Other areas where Chinese institutions take centre stage include sustainable and low-cost electrical energy storage, the development of wearable graphene sensors and a cluster on computer science research that revolves around specific methods for analysing big datasets.    

The research fronts where the US takes the lead, meanwhile, are more closely linked to medical and life science fields, the most well known being in the advancement of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology.

Here, the University of California system, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology all feature prominently, each with an individual research share that rivals or exceeds the CAS’s own involvement. There are also large research fronts linked to cancer research where the US dominates.

For Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the ISI and a visiting professor at King’s College London’s Policy Institute, the findings from the analysis reflect the research focus that both nations have developed over recent years.

“US research investment has focused heavily on funding for the life sciences in recent decades, so it’s not surprising that they are very strong in areas like CRISPR,” he said, pointing to data showing how funding for the National Institutes of Health, after adjusting for inflation, is about three times what it was about 40 years ago.

“By contrast, the Chinese research base is really still emerging from the heavy science, engineering and technology background that it directed to support manufacturing before [the country] opened up [to the world]. It’s now progressively moving into other areas, so it’s getting stronger and stronger in life sciences and social sciences, but its real long-term investment has been in [engineering and technology].”

The challenge in the coming years for the US, he said, was that it had set out its strategic stall to boost investment in some areas where China was arguably already leading. Priorities for the 2021 research and development budget set out by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) last year included a focus on energy and advanced manufacturing, for instance.

“The current strategy proposed by the OSTP for the US science base is to invest in areas like energy – just those areas where they failed to previously invest. It is also where China has got a very strong lead, powerful capacity and a high level of international collaboration,” Professor Adams said.

This last point creates a potentially even bigger problem for the US, which collaborates heavily with China in most areas of science, including in these fields where it may want to grow. However, the political stance of the Trump administration has been to increasingly distance itself from China, with claims that research ties are being used by the country for ulterior purposes including espionage.

For William Kirby, T. M. Chang professor of China studies at Harvard University, the interconnected nature of global science means that the US “cannot reconcile a scientific decoupling with China and its aspirations to remain a leader in innovation”.

“For [the US] to stay at the forefront of science and technology, the Trump administration has to commit to three items anathema to its political agenda: invest in higher education; welcome talented immigrants; and collaborate with the brightest minds abroad, including from China,” he said.

But he also questioned whether the US and China were even engaged in a “race” on scientific breakthroughs, as this may “miss the fact that the most significant discoveries [today] are largely made by international teams that bring together the best minds regardless of nationality”. This was very different from the US-Soviet technological race around space and defence, where there was zero collaboration, he added.

“Separating American and Chinese research communities is, first, practically impossible as researchers everywhere rely on work done elsewhere to push forward research agendas and, second, likely to slow the pace of innovation in both countries if attempted,” Professor Kirby said.

How US and Chinese institutions stack up on main research fronts

Research front (abbreviated)

Main discipline

Number of
“core” papers

Largest contributor

% of papers with institutional affiliation

Perovskite solar cells

Materials science


Chinese Academy of Sciences


Hydrogen evolution reaction catalytic activity



Chinese Academy of Sciences


Efficient solar photocatalytic water splitting



Chinese Academy of Sciences


Cancer treatment using Nivolumab

Clinical medicine


Harvard University


Human gut microbiota research

Clinical medicine


University of California system


CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology

Biology and biochemistry


University of California system


Metal-free oxygen reduction reaction electrocatalyst



Chinese Academy of Sciences


Sustainable sodium-ion batteries

Materials science


Chinese Academy of Sciences


2D quantum materials

Materials science


Chinese Academy of Sciences


Cancer-associated exosomes

Clinical medicine


University of California System


High-efficiency polymer solar cells

Materials science


Chinese Academy of Sciences


Multicriteria Pythagorean fuzzy decision analysis

Computer science


Sichuan University


Wearable graphene strain sensors

Materials science


Chinese Academy of Sciences


Conductive porous metal-organic frameworks



Chinese Academy of Sciences


Caroline Wagner, Milton and Roslyn Wolf chair in international affairs at Ohio State University, said it was also important to note that the development of cross-border collaborative teams was sometimes the product of “small world” connections that arose from meetings at events (at least before Covid-19) as well as reputational links and funding decisions.

“Thus, the churn and mobility of people is more a social phenomenon than the result of a targeted national strategy or policy. It is difficult to steer or govern these activities − they are largely a social function − aside from funding research, fellowships and travel,” she said.

However, Andrew Nathan, class of 1919 professor of political science at Columbia University, said that depending on the field of science − but especially in those seen as key to the 21st-century economy, such as robotics and nanotechnology − it was clear that, in terms of national strategy, the US now viewed scientific advancement as a race with China.

“China made it clear it was pitching for leadership in these areas and the US has woken up to the fact that the competition is real. I am not a Trump supporter, but I think on this particular point mainstream opinion is united,” he said.

“It’s not strictly about being the first, however, but about getting the advantage of the first mover and standard setter in each of these key fields so as to reap the economic benefits of long-term leadership in the field, as the US has done with computer and internet technology up to now.”

How this is reconciled with the deeply intertwined world of scientific collaboration will be one of the most fascinating developments to watch over the coming years.

Outside the main orbit: should other nations plough their own furrow?

With the US and China appearing set to battle it out to lead with scientific breakthroughs in important areas such as genetics, computing and advanced manufacturing, where does this leave the rest of the world?

Data from the Web of Science research fronts analysis demonstrates that although they may be smaller in terms of capacity, major nations such as the UK and Germany are finding their own niches to push the boundaries of research.

Germany appears to be taking a lead in power systems for renewable energy, while the UK is prominent in some social science research fronts that appear in the data, including societal adaptation to climate change.

Clusters of other countries also form around research questions that remain largely untouched by the main science superpowers or where there is a regional dimension around the need for knowledge and advancement.

However, Jenny Lee, professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, who in a recent study looked at collaborative networks in the context of Covid-19 research, said less wealthy countries and those “on the scientific periphery” still needed to seek collaboration with the US and China to advance.

“The advantages of international collaboration, especially collaborating with the US, China or any major country, is that the scientific impact (i.e. citations) increases,” she said.

“Research in small, niche areas within a low-income country or among low-producing countries would likely result in a lower-impact paper. Thus, the advantages are not just in resources and expertise, but also the scientific network.”

One “potential disadvantage” of this, though, was the “unequal power dynamics when highly unequal countries or institutions collaborate” − something that could make networks of smaller countries an attractive alternative.


Print headline: US and China battle it out in hot areas of research

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