The Science of Going East

In 2007, when I told my friends that I am going to do my post-doc in the Department of Physics, Beijing Normal University in China, they thought I got the direction wrong. Back in the early 80’s they would be probably less skeptical, as at that time the East was a popular direction among Polish scientists. But even then they would not dare to think further to the east than Novosibirsk in the Russian West Siberia, where the excellent Institute of Semiconductor Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences – one of the world-level research centers behind the Iron Curtain – was located.

With the rising economical position of China, its opening up in the area of science was a matter of time. In the 21st century anyone who thinks of playing a significant role on the world stage, has to make his scientific voice to be heard clearly. Over the last few years “scientific development” has become one of the leading mantras of the Chinese president Hu Jintao. Reiterated in various contexts, sometimes even surprisingly far away from the science itself, it was nevertheless a clear signal that China is willing to start a long journey towards innovative and knowledge-based economy.

According to the official statistics1,2, the share of the GDP invested in the research and development sector in China grew from 0.64 percent in 1996 to over 1.5 percent in 2007. Although still being way below the developed economies threshold of 3 percent, this investment effort was one of the factors driving the ten-fold increase in the number of scientific papers published by Chinese authors in international journals: it jumped from 25,007 in 1997 to 270,824 in 2008, making China the second-biggest producer of scientific papers with 11.5% share in the total world output2,3.

Of course the increase in the number of articles is not always positively correlated with the quality and innovativeness of the research reported. In fact in terms of the impact factor, measured as the number of citations per paper, China with its 5.87 is far behind the world’s leading Switzerland (16.62) and the USA (15.71)1. In spite of that, the fact that Chinese scientists started to prefer publishing in high-impact international journals rather than in local ones, is an obvious sign that they want to get noticed in the international community. The opening up of the academic environment is an interesting phenomenon itself. This internationalization of the Chinese science is constantly developing since the 80’s, after China’s first batch of scientists moved to the West to do research. Most of them decided to pursue their careers abroad, but those who returned to their home country, became the driving force of the internationalization. These people, who may be described as “Chinese researchers with a western characteristics”, are usually leading the most successful research projects funded by Chinese agencies such as the Ministry of Science and Technology or the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Their advantage over the other players is obvious: they know both how to move around the Chinese research funding system and they know how to “sell” the results of their research on the international scientific market. These people are usually the best partners for doing research in China.

The potential of the Chinese science should not be ignored. With the increasing investment in the research sector, it is definitely a place of opportunities. It seems the need of cooperation with China has been already noticed, but effective long-term strategies are still missing. A few years ago, the European Union attempted to create a platform for EU-China scientific cooperation by starting the Science and Technology Fellowship Programme – China. The EU-funded 1.7 mil. EUR program, addressed to young researchers, consisted of a 6-months language training followed by a 18-month research period in a host institution in China. Unfortunately, after two intakes, the project has been suspended, and it seems that individual contacts between researchers, supported by standard research grants with a component for international cooperation, are the best way to do science with China for the time being. With a proper Chinese partner, western researchers can be also put (at least in part) into the Chinese funding machinery. As usual, the cooperation seems to be particularly successful in the domain of basic research: Projects with a well-defined path from science to applications are especially welcome and well funded. Individual cooperation is probably the most effective way in terms of scientific results, but a kind of road-map prioritizing the most promising common areas of research would be definitely a good idea for those countries and institutions who think of a serious, long-term scientific cooperation with the Middle Kingdom.

[1] Rich in papers, China still less innovative, China Daily (29 Jun 2011)

[2] BAI Chunli, CAO Jinghua, Crossing borders, challenging boundaries: Reflections on a decade of exchange at the Chinese–American Kavli Frontiers of Science Symposium, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences 105, 1101 (2008)

[3] SHAO Jufang, SHEN Huiyun, The outflow of academic papers from China: why is it happening and can it be stemmed, Learned Publishing 24, 95 (2011)

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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