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16 August 2010

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

By Michael Brooks

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.

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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.

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