ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker - The global race for future power
The Critical Technology Tracker is a large project that spans this report and a website. It was launched on 1st March 2023.
We encourage readers of the report to explore https://techtracker.aspi.org.au/ as it contains an enormous amount of original data and analysis. We have also created a range of visual snapshots including one that outlines the lead country and technology monopoly risk and another that shows the top 5 country rankings.
UPDATE: On 6th June ASPI added additional AUKUS relevant technologies to the Critical Tech Tracker. You can explore these on the website and view a top 10 country snapshot of these findings here. There are now 52 critical technologies covered in the Critical Tech Tracker.
Future phases of this work are being planned. We are looking at adding additional technologies, conducting new research and making this a major, annually updated project. If you would like to discuss supporting this program of work please contact us via [email protected]
What’s the problem?
Western democracies are losing the global technological competition, including the race for scientific and research breakthroughs, and the ability to retain global talent—crucial ingredients that underpin the development and control of the world’s most important technologies, including those that don’t yet exist.
Our research reveals that China has built the foundations to position itself as the world’s leading science and technology superpower, by establishing a sometimes stunning lead in high-impact research across the majority of critical and emerging technology domains.
China’s global lead extends to 37 out of 44 technologies that ASPI is now tracking, covering a range of crucial technology fields spanning defence, space, robotics, energy, the environment, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), advanced materials and key quantum technology areas.1 The Critical Technology Tracker shows that, for some technologies, all of the world’s top 10 leading research institutions are based in China and are collectively generating nine times more high-impact research papers than the second-ranked country (most often the US). Notably, the Chinese Academy of Sciences ranks highly (and often first or second) across many of the 44 technologies included in the Critical Technology Tracker. We also see China’s efforts being bolstered through talent and knowledge import: one-fifth of its high-impact papers are being authored by researchers with postgraduate training in a Five-Eyes country.2 China’s lead is the product of deliberate design and long-term policy planning, as repeatedly outlined by Xi Jinping and his predecessors.3
A key area in which China excels is defence and space-related technologies. China’s strides in nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles reportedly took US intelligence by surprise in August 2021.4
Had a tool such as ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker been collecting and analysing this data two years ago, Beijing’s strong interest and leading research performance in this area would have been more easily identified...
Had a tool such as ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker been collecting and analysing this data two years ago, Beijing’s strong interest and leading research performance in this area would have been more easily identified, and such technological advances would have been less surprising. That’s because, according to our data analysis, over the past five years, China generated 48.49% of the world’s high-impact research papers into advanced aircraft engines, including hypersonics, and it hosts seven of the world’s top 10 research institutions in this topic area.
The US comes second in the majority of the 44 technologies examined in the Critical Technology Tracker. The US currently leads in areas such as high performance computing, quantum computing and vaccines. Our dataset reveals that there’s a large gap between China and the US, as the leading two countries, and everyone else. The data then indicates a small, second-tier group of countries led by India and the UK: other countries that regularly appear in this group—in many technological fields— include South Korea, Germany, Australia, Italy, and less often, Japan.
This project—including some of its more surprising findings—further highlights the gap in our understanding of the critical technology ecosystem, including its current trajectory. It’s important that we seek to fill this gap so we don’t face a future in which one or two countries dominate new and emerging industries (something that recently occurred in 5G technologies) and so countries have ongoing access to trusted and secure critical technology supply chains.
China’s overall research lead, and its dominant concentration of expertise across a range of strategic sectors, has short and long term implications for democratic nations. In the long term, China’s leading research position means that it has set itself up to excel not just in current technological development in almost all sectors, but in future technologies that don’t yet exist. Unchecked, this could shift not just technological development and control but global power and influence to an authoritarian state where the development, testing and application of emerging, critical and military technologies isn’t open and transparent and where it can’t be scrutinised by independent civil society and media.
In the more immediate term, that lead—coupled with successful strategies for translating research breakthroughs to commercial systems and products that are fed into an efficient manufacturing base—could allow China to gain a stranglehold on the global supply of certain critical technologies.
Such risks are exacerbated because of the willingness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to use coercive techniques5 outside of the global rules-based order to punish governments and businesses, including withholding the supply of critical technologies.6
What’s the solution?
These findings should be a wake-up call for democratic nations, who must rapidly pursue a strategic critical technology step-up.
Governments around the world should work both collaboratively and individually to catch up to China and, more broadly, they must pay greater attention to the world’s centre of technological innovation and strategic competition: the Indo-Pacific. While China is in front, it’s important for democracies to take stock of the power of their potential aggregate lead and the collective strengths of regions and groupings (for example the EU, the Quad and AUKUS, to name just a few examples). But such aggregate leads will only be fully realised through far deeper collaboration between partners and allies, greater investment in areas including R&D, talent and commercialisation, and more focused intelligence strategies. And, finally, governments must make more space for new, bigger and more creative policy ideas - the step-up in performance required demands no less.
Partners and allies need to step up and seriously consider things such as sovereign wealth funds at 0.5%–0.7% of gross national income providing venture capital, research and scale-up funding, with a sizable portion reserved for high-risk, high-reward ‘moonshots’ (big ideas). Governments should plan for:
- technology visas, ‘friend-shoring’ and R&D grants between allies
- a revitalisation of the university sector through specialised scholarships for students and technologists working at the forefront of critical technology research
- restructuring taxation systems to divert private capital towards venture capital and scale-up efforts for promising new technologies
- new public–private partnerships and centres of excellence to help to foster greater commercialisation opportunities.
Intelligence communities have a pivotal role to play in both informing decision-makers and building capability. One recommendation we make is that Five-Eyes countries, along with Japan, build an intelligence analytical centre focused on China and technology (starting with open-source intelligence).
We outline 23 policy recommendations for partners and allies to act on collaboratively and individually. They span across the four themes of investment and talent; global partnerships; intelligence; and moonshots. While China is in front, it’s important for democracies to take stock of their combined and complementary strengths. When added up, they have the aggregate lead in many technology areas.
What is ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker?
ASPI’s new Critical Technology Tracker website (https://techtracker.aspi.org.au/) provides the public with a rich new dataset that allows users to track 44 technologies foundational for our economies, societies, national security, energy production, health and climate security. Both the website and this report provide decision-makers with a new evidence base to make more informed policy and investment decisions. A list of these 44 technologies, including definitions, can be found here.
This effort goes further than previous attempts to benchmark research output across nations by focusing on individual institutions and technologies, identified as being critical and emerging, rather than focusing on total research output. Technology definitions can be found on the website.7
This report is broken into key sections:
Methodology: We provide an explanation of why tracking high-impact research is a useful measure of where countries, universities and companies are excelling. We explain our methodology in detail and provide ‘deep dives’ into our dataset to explore three major fields: AI, quantum technologies and advanced materials.
Analysis: This research focuses on a key performance measure of scientific and technological capability—high-impact research—and reveals where countries, universities and companies around the world have a competitive advantage in this measure across the 44 technologies. The talent tracker also examines other metrics to reveal the flow of global talent in these technologies and to highlight brain gains and brain drains for each country. Our analysis of the dataset also helps policymakers understand where the concentration of research expertise is most extreme and could threaten future access to key technologies.
Visual Snapshot: Readers looking for a visual summary of the top-5 ranked countries (see example below) in each of the 44 technology areas can jump to Appendixes 1.1 and 1.2. Appendix 4 is a table of flags and the countries that they represent.
Given China’s strengths in so many of these technologies, this report unpacks elements of China’s lead, including by examining China’s breakout research capabilities in defence, security and intelligence technologies, along with the long-term policy and planning efforts that underpinned this outcome.
Recommendations: The report provides 23 policy recommendations geared towards closing the critical technologies research gap.
ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker website contains an enormous amount of original data and analysis, and we encourage readers to visit the site and explore the data as they engage with this report. ASPI aims for the tracker to be used by policymakers, businesses, researchers and media. We’ll continue to build and improve this program of work over the coming years, including by adding more technologies and possibly more features.
Critical technologies already underpin the global economy and our society. From the energy-efficient microprocessors in smartphones to the security that enables online banking and shopping, these technologies are ubiquitous and essential. They’re unlocking green energy production and supporting medical breakthroughs. They’re also the basis for military capability on the battlefield, are underpinning new hybrid warfare techniques and can give intelligence agencies a major edge over adversaries.
Just a few years ago, a nation could focus its research, resource extraction and manufacturing energies toward its strengths with the assurance that international supply chains would provide the balance of required goods. That world has gone, swept away by Covid-19, geopolitics and changes in global supply chains. Countries have also shown a willingness to withhold supplies of critical materials as a weapon of economic coercion, and an energy crisis is gripping much of the world as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This report, and the Critical Technology Tracker website, fill a global gap by identifying which countries, universities and businesses are leading the effort to progress scientific and research innovation, including breakthroughs, in critical technologies. Database queries identified the relevant set of papers for each technology (2.2 million in total; see our method in brief on page 10 and in detail in Appendix 2).8 The top 10% most highly cited research publications from the past five years on each of the 44 technologies were analysed. In addition, our work collecting and analysing data on the flow of researchers between countries at various career stages—undergraduate, postgraduate and employment—identifies brain drains and brain gains in each technology area. See below talent flow graphic that illustrates the global competition for research talent across these 44 technologies.
China is further ahead in more areas than has been realised. It’s the leading country in 37 of the 44 technologies evaluated, often producing more than five times as much high-impact research as its closest competitor. This means that only seven of the 44 analysed technologies are currently led by a democratic country, and that country in all instances is the US.
The US maintains its strengths in the design and development of advanced semiconductor devices and leads in the research fields of high performance computing and advanced integrated circuit design and fabrication. It’s also in front in the crucial areas of quantum computing and vaccines (and medical countermeasures). This is consistent with analysis showing that the US holds the most Covid-19 vaccine patents and sits at the centre of this global collaboration network.9 Medical countermeasures provide protection (and post-exposure management) for military and civilian people against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear material by providing rapid field-based diagnostics and therapeutics (such as antiviral medications) in addition to vaccines.10
The race to be the next most important technological powerhouse is a close one between the UK and India, both of which claim a place in the top five countries in 29 of the 44 technologies. South Korea and Germany follow closely behind, appearing in the top five countries in 20 and 17 technologies, respectively. Australia is in the top five for nine technologies, followed closely by Italy (seven technologies), Iran (six), Japan (four) and Canada (four). Russia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Malaysia and the Netherlands are in the top five for one or two technologies. A number of other countries, including Spain and Turkey, regularly make the top 10 countries but aren’t in the top five.
As well as tracking which countries are in front, the Critical Technology Tracker highlights which organisations—universities, companies and labs—are leading in which technologies. For example, the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology has supremacy in a number of quantum technologies.
A range of organisations shine through, including the University of California system, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian Institute of Technology, Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore), the University of Science and Technology China and a variety of national labs in the US (such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). The Chinese Academy of Sciences is a particularly high performer, ranking in the top 5 in 27 of the 44 technologies tracked by the Critical Technology Tracker. Comprising of 116 institutes (which gives it a unique advantage over other organisations) it excels in energy and environment technologies, advanced materials (including critical minerals extraction and processing) and in a range of quantum, defence and AI technologies including advanced data analytics, machine learning, quantum sensors, advanced robotics and small satellites. In addition, US technology companies are well represented in some areas, including in the AI category: Google (1st in natural language processing), Microsoft (6th by H-index and 10th by ‘highly cited’ in natural language processing), Facebook (14th by H-index in natural language processing), Hewlett Packard Enterprise (14th by H-index in high performance computing) and IBM (Switzerland and US arms both tying at the 11th place with other institutions by H-index in AI algorithms and hardware accelerators).
There’s a human dimension to technology development that should also be factored into assessments of technological capability. Innovations are ultimately the result of researchers, scientists and designers with a lifetime of training and experience that led to their breakthroughs. Understanding where those researchers started their professional journeys, where they received the training that equipped them to be leaders in their fields, and finally where they are now as they make their discoveries, paints a picture of how well countries are competing in their ability to attract and retain skilled researchers from the global pool of talent.
Who are the individuals publishing the high-impact research that’s propelled China to an impressive lead? Where did they study and train? In advanced aircraft engines (including hypersonics), in which China is publishing more than four times as much high-impact research as the US (2nd place), there are two key insights. First, the majority (68.6%) of high-impact authors trained at Chinese universities and now work in Chinese research institutions. Second, China is also attracting talent to the workplace from democratic countries: 21.6% of high-impact authors completed their postgraduate training in a Five-Eyes country (US = 9.8%, UK = 7.8%, Canada = 3.9%, Australia = none, New Zealand = none), 2% trained in the EU, and 2% trained in Japan. Although not quantified in this work, this is very likely to be a combination of Chinese nationals who went abroad for training and brought their newly acquired expertise back to China, and foreign nationals moving to China to work at a research institution or company.
World-leading research institutes typically also provide training for the next generation of innovators through high-quality undergraduates, masters and PhDs, and employment opportunities in which junior researchers are mentored by experts. As China claims seven of the world’s top 10 research institutions for advanced aircraft engines (including hypersonics), its training system is largely decoupled, as there’s a sufficient critical mass of domestic expertise to train the next generation of top scientists. However, a steady supply of new ideas and techniques is also provided by individuals trained overseas who are attracted to work in Chinese institutions.
A crucial question to ask is whether expertise in high-impact research translates into (sticking with the same example) the manufacture of world-leading jet engines. What of reports of reliability problems experienced with Chinese-manufactured jet engines?11 The skill set required for leading-edge engine research differs from the expertise, tacit knowledge and human capital needed to manufacture jet engines to extreme reliability requirements.12 This is an important caveat that readers should keep in mind, and it’s one we point out in multiple places throughout the report. As one external reviewer put it, ‘If you’re good at origami but don’t yet excel at making decent paper, are you really good at origami?’ Naturally, manufacturing capability lags research breakthroughs. However, in the example of jet-engine manufacturing, China appears to be making strides13 and has recognised the ‘choke-point’ of being entirely reliant on US and Swedish companies for the precision-grade stainless steel required for bearings in high performance aircraft engines.14 China’s excellent research performance in this area most likely reflects the prioritisation and investment by the CCP to overcome the reliability, and choke-point, hurdles of previous years.15
But whether the focus is jet engines or advanced robotics, actualising research performance, no matter how impressive, into major technological gains can be a difficult and complicated step that requires other inputs (in addition to high quality research). However, what ASPI’s new Critical Technology Tracker gives us - beyond datasets showing research performance - are unique insights into strategy, intent and potential future capabilities. It also provides valuable insights into the spread, and concentrations of, global expertise across a range of critical areas.
There are many ways in which countries (governments, businesses and civil society) can use the new datasets available in the Critical Technology Tracker. It can be used to support strategic planning, enable more targeted investment, or facilitate the establishment of new global partnerships (to name just a few possibilities). For example, Australia has one of the world’s biggest lithium reserves and has all the critical minerals for making lithium batteries.16 As an established leader in photovoltaics technology,17 Australia has the potential to guarantee its energy security by focusing on electric batteries, critical minerals extraction and processing and photovoltaics technologies while locally capitalising on its onshore critical-minerals resources. As the world’s second largest producer of aluminium, Australia can reduce its greenhouse emissions by using both hydrogen and electricity generated from renewable sources in its aluminium production.18 Strategic funding in these interconnected critical technology could reduce the current tech monopoly risks revealed by the Critical Technology Tracker and support new tech industries with job creation.
These findings should be a wake-up call for democratic nations. It has become imperative, now more than ever, that political leaders, policymakers, businesses and civil society use empirical open-source data to inform decision-making across different technological areas so that, in the years and decades to come, they can reap the benefits of new policies and investments they must make now. Urgent policy changes, increased investment and global collaboration are required from many countries to close the enormous and widening gap. The costs of catching up will be significant, but the costs of inaction could be far greater (Table 1).
Table 1: Lead country and technology monopoly risk.
Readers are warmly encouraged to download the full report which includes;
- What’s the problem?
- What’s the solution?
- What is ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker?
- Executive summary
- Why research is vital for scientific and technological advancements
- Methodology in brief
- China’s science and technology vision
- China’s breakout research capabilities in defence, security and intelligence technologies
- Technology deep dives
- Policy recommendations
- Appendix 1.1: Top 5 country visual snapshot
- Appendix 1.2: One-page visual snapshot
- Appendix 2: Detailed methodology
- Appendix 3: Database search hits
- Appendix 4: Flags
- Acronyms and abbreviations
02 Mar 2023