• China published more scientific papers than the US in 2016 for the very first time.
  • Report warns US needs to stay at forefront of science to "mitigate risks" of warfare.

China has overtaken the US in terms of number of scientific publications in what is seen as a key indicator the country on the verge of becoming the next global superpower.

According to statistics compiled by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), China published more than 426,000 scientific studies indexed by Elsevier's Scopus database in 2016, the equivalent of 18.6% of the worldwide total.

For the first time, the US came in second place after publishing around 409,000 papers that year.

While the report still said the US leads the way in terms of science and technology, China as well as other developing countries are starting to step up their input and are making "rapid strides" in their scientific achievement.

The report says China's advancing in researching could also impact national security and economy as "industries like computing, robotics, and biotechnology are pillars of US economic competitiveness, sustaining and creating millions of high-paying jobs and high-value-added exports".

The report adds "the loss of global leadership in these future drivers of global growth" would hamper the US economy.

Elsewhere, economics expert Robert J Samuleson, writing for the Washington Post, said one danger of China's rise of scientific research is how it could affect their military operations.

He said: "If China makes a breakthrough in a crucial technology — satellites, missiles, cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, electro-magnetic weapons — the result could be a major shift in the strategic balance and, possibly, war.

"Even if this doesn't happen, warns the commission, China's determination to dominate new industries such as artificial intelligence, telecommunications and computers could lead to economic warfare if China maintains subsidies and discriminatory policies to sustain its firms' competitive advantage."

Maria Zuber, NSB chair and vice president for Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, added: "This year's report shows a trend that the US still leads by many science and technology measures, but that our lead is decreasing in certain areas that are important to our country.

"That trend raises concerns about impacts on our economy and workforce, and has implications for our national security. From gene editing to artificial intelligence, scientific advancements come with inherent risks. And it's critical that we stay at the forefront of science to mitigate those risks."

The report notes that the US output still outranks China with regards to citations from scientific papers, however Sweden and Switzerland produce the most highly cited publications, followed by the US, the EU, and then China.

The US is still way out ahead in terms of spending on research and development with $496bn paid in 2016 (26% of global share). In comparison. China's expenditure has sharply risen 18% of the global total since 2000 and now spends $408bn a year (21%).