The Trouble With China’s ‘Innovation Dominance’

An AI robot during an international competition in Beijing, Sept. 10.


Sheldon Cooper/Zuma Press

Graham Allison


Eric Schmidt

are right to note the growth in China’s science and technology sectors and call for greater support for U.S. researchers (“China Will Soon Lead the U.S. in Tech,” op-ed, Dec. 8). One must be cautious, however, in comparing scientific and innovative capacity in China and the U.S.

Industrial indicators, like total computer or solar-panel production, are important for geopolitics, but they are unreliable, indirect metrics at best for tracking innovation. Comparing numbers of scientific papers or patents is most useful when each place has similar standards. Comparing numbers of STEM graduates is useful when graduates are trained similarly, and when similar proportions engage in similarly advanced research after graduation. The U.S. and China are enormously far from these conditions for comparison.

It is not surprising that, with its large population and state-led R&D policies, China is ahead in numbers of STEM students, publications or the size of IT giants. But these indicators do not necessarily say much about present or future innovation.

Many commentators consider AI the key technology of the 21st century. But it is hard to predict our technological future. In 1921 cars and planes seemed to be the “defining” future technologies. Rocketry, computers and genetics were unimaginable. Investing too heavily in one domain risks missing advances elsewhere that couldn’t be predicted.

At stake in the U.S.-China comparisons is how the U.S. invests in research and with whom Americans collaborate, which remain important for many fields. Fears of China’s imminent innovation dominance may be overhasty and may carry risks to America’s own research community.

Richard Yarrow and

Jinlin Li

Harvard Kennedy School

Cambridge, Mass.

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Appeared in the December 24, 2021, print edition as ‘Trouble With China’s ‘Innovation Dominance’.’