If the 20th century marked a period of dominance for the United States among the nations of the world, it’s more than likely that the 21st century will see that crown taken by China. Much of it has to do with that country’s sheer size and the number of STEM degrees held by its citizens. An article published July 2014 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that 1.1 million Chinese citizens held science and engineering degrees as of 2010. That total was four times larger than the amount of American science and engineering degree holders at that time. A 2011 report out from the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that foreign-born Americans were earning proportionally many more STEM degrees than native-born Americans, with Chinese and Indian students making up a large portion of that bulk.
China is also throwing more of its economic power into research and development programs. The United States still leads the world in the total amount of money invested into R&D but a January 2016 report issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that China was in second place, contributing 20 percent of the world’s total R&D investment compared to the 27 percent chipped in by the United States. The decade between 2003 and 2013 saw China increase its R&D investment total by 19.5 percent every year, which has helped it to catch up with the U.S. in that regard.
China is also making the right moves in building the kind of scientific research facilities which are sure to attract researchers and funding for experiments from across the globe. The most recent of these is the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the world’s largest radio telescope. Construction on the telescope, located in China’s Guizhou Province in the southwestern portion of the country, ended in early July. It is about 200 meters wider than the world’s previous title holder for the largest radio telescope, the NSF-operated Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Radio telescopes observe the universe by detecting amounts of radio-frequency (RF) radiation which are emitted by extraterrestrial bodies. Radio telescopes must be constructed much larger than telescopes using visible light for observation as radio wavelengths are much longer than visible light wavelengths. The construction of these telescopes involves a dish surface formed in a wide parabola. The dish’s parabola must be perfectly constructed so that any radio waves hitting the dish surface are directed towards an antenna mounted above the dish. When a radio wave hits the antenna, it affects electrons within the antenna to create a weak electrical current. Computers allow researchers to observe up to thousands of channels within a frequency band which can range over hundreds of megahertz, a measure of radio transmission frequency.
Arecibo Observatory, on which construction was completed in 1963, is very similar to the FAST observatory despite the difference in size. Both of these telescopes are cable-suspended structures with a typical radio telescope construction. One difference which enables FAST’s larger size is a six-cable-suspended robot which orients the telescope’s focus cabin, which houses the telescope’s antenna receivers. According to an academic comparison of FAST and Arecibo completed by mechanical engineering faculty at Ohio University, FAST is capable of seeing three times further into outer space and survey regions of space 10 times faster than the Arecibo Observatory. FAST achieves these advantageous outcomes over Arecibo despite the fact that the total weight of its cables are about 15 percent the cable weight at Arecibo.
More than 40 years of observations at Arecibo have led to some very important discoveries for the scientific field of astronomy. In its first few decades of operation, milestone discoveries include establishing Mercury’s rotational rate, observing the first pulsar in a binary system and the creation of the first radar maps of the geologic surface of Venus. In February 2008, astronomers at Arecibo observed the first near-Earth triple asteroid, composed of three bodies orbiting each other, located 7 million miles from Earth. This March, Arecibo observed the first ever repeating fast radio burst (FRB), a series of energy bursts which last about one-hundredth of a second. The repeating nature of this FRB, which had not been observed before, upends a conventional mindset believing that FRBs are caused by cataclysmic events which would consume whatever body created them.
The FAST radio telescope is simply one part of a multi-faceted plan in which China is trying to wrest technological and scientific dominance from other parts of the world so that it can reign supreme in those areas. A 2011 publication from the Chinese Academy of Sciences lays out a roadmap for the development of large scientific research facilities through the year 2050. Earlier this year, government officials announced the construction of a $1.53 billion USD facility which will house three major research facilities over an area of 3,300 acres in the Beijing region. Reports from last November indicate that China is working with a South Korean biotech firm to construct the world’s largest animal cloning factory. That factory is designed to keep up with China’s beef cattle demand but will also create dogs and horses that China intends to sell on the open market. In 2020, construction is planned to begin in China on a supercollider which will be twice the size of CERN, currently the world’s largest single machine.
In recent years, the Chinese government has promoted a roadmap towards “indigenous innovation” which would see the country become a technological superpower by the year 2050. This would be fine if China intended to do so while following international rules regarding intellectual property, but it seems pretty intent on flouting whatever regulations get in the country’s way in that regard. News reports in recent years indicate that China continues to press foreign entities to follow joint venture rules in which foreign players are required to transfer IP to Chinese domestic firms despite the fact that this breaks rules put in place by the World Trade Organization, of which China has been a member since 2001.
Not only does China conscript foreign IP, actors from that country steal it outright from foreign entities. Last November, a security report from the U.S. Department of State told American firms operating in China that they should expect continuing threats from Chinese hackers attempting to illegally access their IP. Between 2009 and 2011, a pair of Chinese hackers stole 630,000 files related to the Boeing C-17, the third-most expensive plane developed with funding from the U.S. Pentagon. Just this March, U.S. Steel filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) alleging that agents from China stole intellectual property beginning in 2011 in a manner that mirrored other recent hacking events involving those with ties to the Chinese federal government.
At the same time that China is becoming an IP glutton, America is looking to slim down its own patent system. Major legislative overhauls like the America Invents Act has put mechanisms into place at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) which have created a kind of “killing field” for patents. Judicial decisions like Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International have taken entire industries, in this case software, and have deemed them patent-ineligible. These and other actions have served to weaken the value of the American patent market, adding to the devaluing effects of China’s IP thievery.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Cold War was the stage set for the battle of military power and ideologies between the largest powers in the world. In the first half of the 21st century, an Information War could be looming in which China could bring the rest of the world low without ever once firing a shot, thanks to large R&D investments and a complete carelessness for foreign rights.