China: the next science superpower?

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 20, 2007 12:09 pm    Post subject: China: the next science superpower? Reply with quote

China is fast becoming a science superpower due to a massive increase in research spending, buoyed by more of its scientists returning from abroad. Yet its long term progress may still be hampered by a rigid political system, warns a new report The Atlas of Ideas: Mapping the new geography of science.

The findings come from Demos, one of the UK’s most influential think tanks, whose 18-month study offers the most comprehensive insight into emerging innovation in Asia. A series of four reports focus on the dramatic growth and pace of scientific innovation in India, South Korea and China, with a fourth report providing an overview of the international situation and outlining how Britain should respond.

China will be a significant source of innovation in the future, argues the report, and it is determined to challenge European and US dominance in science and technology.

The report’s co-author James Wilsdon said:

“Just as Taiwan and South Korea made themselves centres for innovation over the past twenty years, China is catching up fast. And in some growth areas, like nanotechnology, it is moving even faster than Europe.”

“If its innovation elite can connect with its vast domestic market, China could dramatically change the global innovation order. And this isn’t only about what happens inside China: its success will be boosted by drawing on the talents and creative energy of Chinese all over the world.”

The report reveals that investment and funding of Chinese science and innovation is growing rapidly, and its global impact is already significant, due to:

- Rising spending on research and development: since 1999, China’s spending on R&D has increased by more than 20% each year. China is now the world’s second highest R&D investor after the US
- More patents and scientific output: Invention patent applications have increased by 23% annually since 2000.
- More multinational R&D centres: The Chinese government estimates that 750 global companies now have research centres in China, including Microsoft, Intel, Vodafone, Unilever and AstraZeneca
- The role of returnees: In the past five years, what was a trickle of returnees has become a steady flow, as around 170,000 Chinese have been attracted back by a mix of national loyalty, government incentives and the entrepreneurial opportunities offered by a booming economy.
- The growing graduate pool: Beijing’s university district alone has as many engineers as all of Western Europe and the government is cultivating its high-technology champions.

Report co-author James Wilsdon said:

“Right now, China is engaged in the largest mobilization of scientific resources and manpower since JFK embarked on the moon race. China will attract more multi-national companies who want to bring their R&D closer to its exploding domestic market, but it will also need more homegrown technology champions. The new mantra from Beijing is the need for ‘independent innovation’.”

The report calls for Britain to ‘wake up’ to developments in Asia and promote global, collaborative approaches to innovation rather than a retreat into competing forms of ‘techno-nationalism.’ There are some positive signs: there has been an 800% increase in Chinese students studying in the UK since 1999. And new data gathered for this project by Evidence Ltd reveals that the UK is the third most popular research partner for China (with 1561 co-authored papers in 2005) after Japan (with 2222 papers) and the United States (with 5791).

But while there are some encouraging signs of reform, openness and increased international collaboration within the Chinese innovation system, China still faces huge challenges according to the report. Areas of weakness identified in the report include:

- A planned economy - creating an overly centralized innovation system;
- A weak innovation culture – which does not encourage bottom-up creativity and exploration;
- Techno-nationalism – the danger of a retreat into more closed and defensive national strategies for science and innovation;
- Plagiarism in research – made worse by the fact China does not have a free press and there is not a credible official channel to report, investigate and punish scientific misconduct.


Story first posted: 5th April 2007.
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