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China seen as gaining edge in innovation, education

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International survey released by AstraZeneca: Chinese and Indian citizens optimistic about their nations' innovation potential; US and European residents gloomy.

Two new studies confirm a growing tilt toward China in terms of potential leadership in innovation, as well as attaining the educational edge can catapult the country to a leadership position.

In an international survey of 6,000 respondents across six countries released by AstraZeneca, China is perceived as likely to be the most inventive by 2020, followed by India. The US and Japan will be relegated from first and second place to third and fourth respectively.

There also is a lot more optimism among people living in China and India about the ability of their nations to prosper through innovation – in stark contrast to the gloomier views of those in developed Western economies.

The US still retains the role as the world’s most innovative country, according to the survey, with 30% of people taking that view. Japan follows at 25% and China at 14%. The UK is rated the most innovative by only 3% of people. The US is also regarded as the country that provides the greatest amount of support for innovative individuals and businesses by respondents in all six countries surveyed.

However, when asked which country will be the most innovative a decade from now, China, which is also forecast to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2020, comes top with 27%, followed by India with 17% and the US with 14%. Japan is in fourth place with 12%.

If this survey weren't enough, a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows the US is falling far behind in educational standards, now ranking 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of the 34 OECD countries. The leading locations included Shanghai, China, which ranked first in all three categories. Hong Kong came in second in reading and science and third in math.

The AstraZeneca survey confirms there is a strong sense of self-confidence among Chinese and Indian citizens about their potential to invent and improve their scientific and technological standing. More than half thought their home countries would be the most innovative in the world by 2020 (57% and 56% respectively). Only 28% of Americans shared this view about their own country's innovative spirit.

These findings were also reflected in people’s views about how absolute levels of innovation have changed. A majority of those living in the US, Japan and Britain agree that their countries are not as innovative as they used to be. By contrast, more people in China disagreed with this statement than agreed.

Asked about specific innovations over the past century, the Internet, computers and electricity were generally seen as the most important. However, people in the US, Britain and Sweden also placed equal importance on the invention of vaccines and antibiotics. The creation of the Internet was also viewed as the innovation that has had the greatest impact (29%). This was a view held much more strongly in China and Japan (42% and 43% respectively) than in Britain, the US and Sweden.

The IT and telecoms sectors were universally seen as the most innovative followed by the pharmaceutical and automotive industries.

Remember, in the case of the AstraZeneca survey, these are people's perceptions, which can change dramatically from decade to decade. But still, optimism and education is perhaps the most powerful combination on earth for advancing societies.

One more thing: it's interesting to note that there are historical parallels for the relative gloom seen in the US about competitiveness. In the 1970s and early 1980s, many US observers feared Japan was taking the lead in innovation. However, it was the US that lead the personal computing and Internet revolutions that followed. And it was in the 1950s that many in the US were convinced that the Soviet Union had the edge in space technology. Perhaps these periods of self-doubt got our national adrenaline going.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure