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How God’s Word is True

Get ready for China’s domination of science

Posted by Mats on 07/01/2010

Given that western “science” departments are filled with Darwin worshipers, I don’t know if this change will be better or worse.

SINCE its economic reform began in 1978, China has gone from being a poor developing country to the second-largest economy in the world. China has also emerged from isolation to become a political superpower. Its meteoric rise has been one of the most important global changes of recent years: the rise of China was the most-read news story of the decade, surpassing even 9/11 and the Iraq war.

Yet when it comes to science and technology, most people still think of China as being stuck in the past and only visualise a country with massive steelworks and vast smoking factories.

That may have been true a few years ago, but it is no longer the case. Very quietly, China has become the world’s second-largest producer of scientific knowledge, surpassed only by the US, a status it has achieved at an awe-inspiring rate. If it continues on its current trajectory China will overtake the US before 2020 and the world will look very different as a result. The historical scientific dominance of North America and Europe will have to adjust to a new world order.

In the west, we are largely familiar with research systems in which money, people and output stay roughly the same from year to year. Research spending in Europe and North America has outpaced economic growth since 1945, but not by a dramatic amount.

Not so with China. Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that between 1995 and 2006, China’s gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) grew at an annual rate of 18 per cent. China now ranks third on GERD, just behind the US and Japan and ahead of any individual European Union state.

Universities have experienced similar growth. China’s student population has reportedly reached 25 million, up from just 5 million nine years ago. China now has 1700 higher education institutions, around 100 of which make up the “Project 211” group. These elite institutions train four-fifths of PhD students, two-thirds of graduate students and one-third of undergraduates. They are home to 96 per cent of the country’s key laboratories and consume 70 per cent of scientific research funding.

China’s student population has reached 25 million, up from just 5 million nine years ago

What impact has this had? I recently authored a report analysing China’s research strengths and its patterns of international collaboration. The data was drawn from Thomson Reuters, which indexes scientific papers from around 10,500 journals worldwide.

In 1998, China’s research output was around 20,000 articles per year. In 2006 it reached 83,000, overtaking the traditional science powerhouses of Japan, Germany and the UK. Last year it exceeded 120,000 articles, second only to the US’s 350,000.

Compare that rate of growth with the US, where research output increased by about 30 per cent over the past decade, and it is clear that normal ideas about science management simply do not apply to China.

China is also diversifying its research base. A traditional industrial economy would focus its research on physical sciences and engineering, and our findings confirm that this is where China has been concentrating. But it is also rapidly shifting out of the old economy into new areas.

China produces 10 per cent of the world’s publications in engineering, computer sciences and earth sciences, including minerals. It now also produces 20 per cent of global output in materials sciences, with a leading position in composites, ceramics and polymer science and a strong presence in crystallography and metallurgical engineering. The implications for future industrial development are enormous, as China makes the transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy based on research coming out of its own institutions.

Agricultural research is also expanding as China takes a scientific approach to its vast food demand and supply. Its relatively small share of molecular biology and related areas – around 5 per cent – has suddenly become an investment focus too. If growth in biomedical sciences is as rapid and substantial as it has been elsewhere then China’s impact on gene and protein research will be profound.

An obvious word of warning needs to be made here: quantity is not the same as quality. Measuring the volume of China’s scientific output is clearly both valuable and surprising but it doesn’t tell us whether that research was any good. For that we turn to a useful proxy: China’s scientific collaboration with other countries better known for the high quality of their science. The results here, too, are eye-opening.

China is not doing science behind closed doors; its international collaborations are growing. Nearly 9 per cent of papers originating from Chinese institutions have a US-based co-author. Japanese and British co-authorship is also growing. Collaboration with South Korea and Singapore almost trebled between 2004 and 2008 and collaboration with Australia expanded too – signs, perhaps, of an emerging Asia-Pacific regional network.

So what does this all mean? Firstly, China’s emergence as a scientific superpower can no longer be denied, and it is a question of when rather than if it will become the world’s most prolific producer of scientific knowledge. Perhaps more importantly, China’s expanding regional collaborations show that Asia-Pacific nations no longer rely on links to the European and American institutions that have traditionally led the science world.

The question for the EU and the US as we enter the new decade is no longer about whether we should collaborate with China, but what we can bring to the table to ensure that China wants to collaborate with us.

Jonathan Adams is director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters in London. He is co-author of Global Research Report: China


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