China is on track to overtake the United States on research & development spending by the end of the decade, according to a report issued yesterday by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Above: A technology demonstration of China's Chang'e 5 lunar sample return mission launches on October 24th, 2014. Credit: Xinhua/Jiang Hongjing.

The report in question is the OECD's Science, Technology and Industry Outlook. The international overview is issued every other year, to help analysts and policymakers monitor changes in patterns of science, technology and innovation (STI) funding in global economies big and small.

The latest report, published yesterday, suggests that several developing and middle-income countries are closing the gap between their research and development spending and that of major economies like the U.S., Europe and Japan; meanwhile, China is poised to overtake the U.S. in R&D spending by the end of the decade. Here's Barbara Casassus for Nature News:

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[The OECD's] projection for China's ascendance is earlier than previously forecast, even though the country's economic growth is slowing. In December 2013, the Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit science and technology organization based in Columbus, Ohio, and R&D Magazine predicted in their 2014 Global R&D Funding Forecast that China would not top the charts until around 2022.

"Despite the slowdown, we believe China will surpass the United States in 2020, with the caveat that such predictions are of course not an exact science," says Dominique Guellec, head of country studies and outlook at the OECD's Science, Technology and Innovation directorate.

But, he adds, "The quality of Chinese science is still behind the world average, which is reflected by citation indicators and the share of PhDs among researchers". The country spends much of its R&D budget on building infrastructure, so that less of it goes into actual research than in most other countries, Guellec says.

Already China has pulled ahead of the European Union (EU) in the ratio of R&D spending to gross domestic product (GDP), reporting 2% in 2013 against the EU's 1.9%.

China has also received criticism for an incentive system that awards research grants and promotions not on the quality of one's research, but the rate at which one publishes. This system has given unintentional rise to a lucrative industry of academic fraud that The Economist has characterized as "an industry of plagiarism, invented research and fake journals."

But reports of China's shoddy or invented science are small comfort to researchers and agencies in other countries who are struggling to find funding. Broken incentive system or no, China is doing science, and much of it – like the country's burgeoning space program – is impressive science, at that.

At last month's 27th Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) in Beijing, China's space industry leaders extended an open invitation for other nations to take part in the country's space station program, which is slated to become operational around the same time the International Space Station is decommissioned. Whether that invitation extends to the United States remains to be seen. In an interview with SPACE.com, Bruce McCandless (the first person to make an untethered spacewalk using a Manned Maneuvering Unit), had this to say about China's growth as a spacefaring nation, and the political implications of that growth:

The International Space Station is about 16 years old (construction began in 1998). NASA is working with its international partners to extend the station's orbital life through 2028, but the orbiting outpost will eventually be retired and intentionally destroyed by burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Although China is inviting widespread participation in its space station plans, it probably doesn't include the U.S., "the way we're addressing the situation," McCandless said, referring to the current lack of U.S.-China cooperation on human spaceflight. "It would be very politically powerful" if China were to include the U.S. in that invitation, he said.

H/t Nature News!