The spark rises in the east

China, driven by a desire for prestige and its own Nobel laureates, could soon lead the world in sci

Science is rising in the east. China's strategies for economic development, which are centred on creating a world-beating science base, don't sound like much. They go by odd names: the 863 Programme and Project 211, for instance, and the Torch and Spark programmes. But they are proving to be more powerful than even the Chinese government could have hoped.

Last year, following a decade of phenomenal growth, China became the second-biggest producer of scientific knowledge in the world. In 1998, Chinese scientists published about 20,000 articles. In 2009, they produced more than 120,000. Only the US turns out more.

According to figures released this year by the US National Science Foundation, there are now as many researchers working in China as there are working in the US or the EU. The state is encouraging Chinese scientists trained in the west to return home, offering them enormous salaries and access to world-class laboratories. In 2008, for example, the molecular biologist Yigong Shi, one of Princeton University's rising stars, walked away from a $10m research grant to set up a lab at Tsinghua University in Beijing. In January, the Chinese equivalent of the US National Institutes of Health was unveiled with £150m in its pockets, which will be distributed to new medical research projects.

“China is focusing on developing an elite group of institutions and the performance of these is going to go on improving," says Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters in London and lead author of a 2009 report into China's scientific research strategies and achievements.

If present trends continue, China will be the world leader in science by the end of this decade. "There's going to be a new geography," Adams says. "The map that people have in their minds of where science is taking place will have to be adjusted." Scientists working in the west need to react, according to Xiaoqin Wang, director of a biomedical engineering centre that Johns Hopkins University runs jointly with Tsing­hua University. "Collaboration will become more and more important," he says.

Canny European and North American scientists are already reaching out to China. The number of east-west collaborations has doubled in the past five years and organisations such as the UK Research Councils, the British Council and the US National Science Foundation have made brokering such partnerships a priority.

Collaborate or die

According to Rainer Spurzem, an astronomer at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the National Astronomical Observatories of China, collaboration with Chinese research­ers is important because science in China is growing so fast. Not to pull these scientists into the international research effort "would be a loss for all sides", says Spurzem.

Spurzem is a main player in one of the most recent collaborations, established in June. The International Centre for Computational Science, a joint venture between the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Heidelberg and the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, will develop computational resources for use by scientists across Europe, Asia and the US. This kind of partnership will act to speed China's rise - and the Chinese know it, says Simon Collinson, an expert on Chinese innovation strategies based at Warwick Business School. "Part of the game plan is to learn as much as they can from the British, the Americans and others and use that knowledge to boost their own efforts."

Those who don't collaborate with their Chinese peers risk becoming second-rate. Given the sheer volume of Chinese researchers, they will come to dominate various fields; only through collaboration will western scientists know what is going on behind the scenes. "If you've missed out on the background thinking behind published papers, you don't know what was tried and dropped," Adams says.

It's not all bad news for western researchers, because it will take more than money to achieve scientific supremacy. "Funding can be a strong attractor but this is just one of many components of doing good science," says Artur Ekert, a quantum physicist who is a professor at Oxford and director of the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore. "You also need a certain type of attitude, atmosphere, synergy, culture and so on." Here, China is still weak, partly as a consequence of its culture. Ekert points out that the western tradition embraces adversarial debate, while the eastern approach is characterised by Confucianism's search for harmony. "Despite many Chinese scientists being educated in the west, there is still a subtle division in the way we do science," he says.

If China is serious about conquering the world of science, its culture will have to change, Wang says, because the less hierarchical western tradition produces better results. "At the moment, when a well-respected senior scientist gives a seminar in China, you don't often see junior scientists stand up and criticise the ideas," he says. But this is how scientists make progress. "In science, by its very nature, young people come up with new ideas; one generation passes another. This is something that the Chinese need to achieve."

As collaborations increase, there will also be culture shocks for western scientists. Chinese intellectuals tend to have a more relaxed attitude, for instance, to using other people's work without attributing what others would deem proper credit. "The idea of ownership is not something they associate with," Collinson says. "That's why patents don't work very well in China and brands get stolen and reused all the time." Though his main experience is in hi-tech industry, it applies in academia, too, he says. "People get very close to cutting and pasting papers and reusing them."

This attitude, coupled with strong pressures to succeed, has led to some high-profile cases of scientific fraud. In December, the international chemistry journal Acta Crystallographica retracted 70 papers by Chinese authors after they were found to be riddled with falsified results. According to a report in Nature, one in three researchers surveyed at major Chinese universities and research institutions admitted to plagiarism, falsification or fabrication of data. The problem is exacerbated by universities offering incentives such as cash prizes for those who achieve high-profile publications. In January this year, an editorial in the Lancet issued a call for the state to step in to deal with China's growing reputation as a hotbed of scientific fraud. "China's government needs to take this episode as a cue to reinvigorate standards for teaching research ethics," it said.

This is starting to happen, says David Evans, a British chemist who has been working at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology since 1996. The ministry of science and technology has established an office of research integrity that investigates allegations and issues guidelines for behaviour. Researchers are also taking matters into their own hands, exposing cases of misconduct (or, at least, alleged misconduct) on an unofficial website called New Threads.

Blue skies

Such creases need to be ironed out, but there are upsides to the differences between east and west. Chinese scientists will bring a fresh approach to western research. "The analysis of a problem, what they think of as the most interesting element and the tools they use will be an important part of development of some fields," Adams says. In the short term, however, great innovation is unlikely. For the next few years, China's dominance will be most visible in areas related to its economic well-being.

In July, for instance, China's State Oceanic Administration announced that it would be receiving a funding boost in next year's science budget. The money will go towards the construction of a new deep-sea exploration research centre in Qingdao, Shandong Province. The main aim is to bolster the hunt for oil and minerals seen as vital to future growth.

More widely, most of the research budget is focused on delivering advances that will increase the productivity of China's industrial and manufacturing base. "A much smaller proportion of funds is allocated to basic research than in most other countries," Evans says. However, the amount of money directed at "blue-skies research" is beginning to increase, driven partly by the desire for home-grown innovation that will bring prestige to the country.

Space science is one such area. Here, China hopes to lead the world and, as with America's Apollo missions of the 1960s, any economic pay-off will be a bonus on top of the boost to national pride. Perhaps most important to China is the goal of generating Nobel Prizes. Although there have been four Chinese Nobel laureates in science, no research carried out in mainland China has been awarded a Nobel - yet. It's 4,000 miles from Beijing to Stockholm, but it's starting to seem a lot closer.

Michael Brooks is the author of "Thirteen Things that Don't Make Sense" (Profile Books, £8.99) and an NS science columnist.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science

Picture: David Parkin
Show Hide image

The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.


Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”


May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496