China’s scientific prowess has improved dramatically in recent years. The country’s spending on research and development grew ten fold between 2000 and 2016 and the results are showing.
Last month’s highlight was the landing of a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon, and while some of China’s achievements are more about catching up to the West rather than advancing overall scientific knowledge, there is still plenty to admire.
As The Economist recently noted, China’s scientists have been ticking off milestones such as human space flight, vast genome-sequencing facilities, a fleet of research vessels, climate researchers drilling deep into the Antarctic icecap, powerful supercomputers, underground neutrino and dark-matter detectors.
Much of China’s research has real-world implications. A study published last month by Elsevier, a scientific publisher, and news organisation Nikkei, found that China published more high-impact research papers than the US did in 23 out of 30 hot research fields with clear technological applications. The resources available to China’s top scientists are the envy of many of their western counterparts. Once the best Chinese scientists would seek research work overseas, but today Chinese postdoctoral researchers often get experience in the West and then head home where the Chinese government helps set them up in world-class facilities. Younger researchers have been attracted by the Thousand Talents Plan, in which scientists aged under 55 (whether Chinese citizens or not) are given full-time positions at prestigious universities and institutes, with larger than normal salaries and resources.
Sheer numbers have also helped. If you believe every country has a certain fraction of talented, innovative people, then China’s advantage of having lots of people is obvious, but of course this doesn’t explain why the science developed by other large countries, such as India, is nowhere near China’s level.One of the novel ways Chinese institutions encourage their researchers to publish high-profile papers is to offer cash incentives. One study found that on average a paper in Nature or Science could earn the author a bonus of almost $44,000 in 2016. While there is some debate on the quality versus quantity of China’s published research, papers in high-profile publications are peer-reviewed reviewed internationally.
Further scientific advances are inevitable with China’s R&D spending still having plenty of upside. It was 2.07 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015, up from 0.89 per cent in 2000, which is higher than the European average but still much lower than that of Japan and South Korea. If China spent as much of its GDP on research as South Korea, its R&D budget would be twice as big as it is today.
The ultimate goal is to develop a homegrown, innovative research environment. Although many of China’s achievements to date have been incremental improvements rather than major scientific breakthroughs, the resources enjoyed by top researchers and the intellectual firepower on hand suggest progress to this goal is inevitable.
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