China's goal is to be a leader in science education

opinion March 11, 2013 00:00

By Suwatchai Songwanich
CEO Bang

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More than three decades ago China's reforming leader, Deng Xiaoping, began economic reforms which would transform the world in the 21st century as China emerged as a global economic superpower. The centrepiece of the strategy was science and technology a

Science and technology continues to be of critical importance to the Chinese economy, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

For example, very few of the major commercial breakthroughs in technology in recent years have come from China. And, according to the 2012 rankings by the Centre for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, no Chinese university made it into the top 10 universities in the world, while only five Chinese universities made it into the top 500. The top 10 universities list is still overwhelmingly dominated by the United States – the top universities are Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Cambridge (UK), Caltech, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago and Oxford (UK).
Not surprisingly the best Chinese students flock to study at foreign universities, especially in the US, and many do not come back to China – a trend the leadership is seeking to change.
Time would seem to be on China’s side. While American students are slipping in the world rankings for science and mathematics, China’s students are rising. Moreover, science is still popular among students in China, whereas it attracts only a tiny fraction of young American graduates.
Deng Xiaoping’s early vision was for the transformation of an agricultural-based society into an industrial society, with the support of science and technology. Today the goal is to transform China from an industrial society into an innovative society. One way the government plans to achieve this is to greatly increase the level of investment in research and development, with a target of R&D contributing 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2020.
R&D in China has already grown more than tenfold in ten years, from around US$12 billion in 2001 to about $135 billion (Bt4 trillion) in 2011, while investment in basic science and applied research has increased more than sixfold.
Such investment should help attract Chinese science graduates to return home where they will be able to work on research initiatives in science. Moreover, as I mentioned in an earlier column, the government is also offering strong inducements for Chinese people to return under its “One Thousand Talents” programme.
In another sign that China is serious about moving into the top slot for science, the number of quality scientific papers coming out of the country – measured by how often they are cited in other studies – is growing exponentially. China already produces more natural science and engineering research papers than the US, which is overall the biggest producer of scientific reports in the world. Based on current trends, China will publish the most papers in all scientific fields by 2015.
Thailand should take note of China’s progress. Currently R&D in Thailand accounts for only 0.2 per cent of GDP. Economic planners recognise this needs to increase dramatically to support the future development of the country and the Board of Investment has announced new incentives to support this goal.
The government should also examine the important role of science education in supporting R&D.
Unfortunately, today fewer Thai students choose these fields, with many opting instead to study subjects such as management and finance.
For more columns in this series please see