London: China is on course to overtake the US in terms of scientific output as early as 2013. (Agencies)
That is the conclusion of a major new study by the UK's national science academy, the Royal Society.
An analysis of published research reveals an "especially striking" rise by Chinese science.
The study, Knowledge, Networks and Nations, charts the challenge to the traditional dominance of the United States, Europe and Japan, a newspaper reported.
"Projections vary, but a simple linear interpretation of Elsevier's publishing data suggests that this could take place as early as 2013," it says.
According to the analysis, China, the country that invented the compass and the gunpowder, paper and printing would top US seven years earlier than expected, thus bringing about a major change in the global scientific landscape.
Previous estimates for the rate of expansion of Chinese science had suggested that China might overtake the US sometime after 2020.
But this study shows that China, after displacing the UK as the world's second leading producer of research, could go on to overtake America in as little as two years' time.
In 1996, the first year of the analysis, the US published 292,513 papers - more than 10 times China's 25,474.
By 2008, the US total had increased slightly to 316,317 while China's had surged more than seven-fold to 184,080.
Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, chair of the report, said he was "not surprised" by this increase because of China's massive boost to investment in R&D.
Chinese spending has grown by 20 per cent per year since 1999, now reaching over USD 100 billion, and as many as 1.5 million science and engineering students graduated from Chinese universities in 2006.
"I think this is positive, of great benefit, though some might see it as a threat and it does serve as a wake-up call for us not to become complacent," Smith said.
The report stresses that American research output will not decline in absolute terms and raises the possibility of countries like Japan and France rising to meet the Chinese challenge.
"But the potential for China to match American output in terms of sheer numbers in the near to medium term is clear".
According to the report, "The scientific league tables are not just about prestige - they are a barometer of a country's ability to compete on the world stage".
This is yet another indicator of China's extraordinarily rapid rise as a global force along with the growth of the Chinese economy.
Although China has risen in the "citation" rankings, its performance on this measure lags behind its investment and publication rate.
The UK's scientific papers are still the second most-cited in the world, after the US.
Dr Cong Cao, associate professor at Nottingham University's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, agrees with the assessment that the quantity of China's science is yet not matched by its quality.
London: China is on course to overtake the US in terms of scientific output as early as 2013.