LONDON (Reuters) - Deliang Chen started his scientific career in China in the early 1980s, part of the first generation to follow the vicious anti-intellectual years of the Cultural Revolution.
“There was a big desire to help those with degrees,” says Chen of those days. “You could become a researcher with a master’s degree. There were no PhDs.”
China has changed since then, of course. The country has increased its spending on science at a blistering rate and now publishes the second most scientific papers in the world after the United States. Read the headlines and you might think that China is about to overtake the West.
But China’s scientific progress is no sure thing. Interviews with Chinese scientists working in the West together with data from the OECD and some of the world’s leading science academies suggest restrictive political and cultural attitudes continue to stifle science there. International collaboration is harder from China, scientists say, while many still prefer to be educated in and live in the West.
That’s certainly Chen’s experience. After winning a scholarship to study in Germany in the late 1980s he returned to China for a few years but then got a job offer from Sweden, where he is now a professor in the Earth Sciences department of Gothenburg University. He still has strong links with China’s scientific community, and worked as Science Director at the Beijing Climate Center for six years until 2008. From a purely scientific point of view, he says, it’s an exciting time to work in China, particularly because funding is generous.
But he thinks predictions that China will surpass the United States in science in the next 20 years are way too optimistic. Everything from a lack of affordable good schools to concerns about poor air and food quality still keep many scientists away. More importantly, China’s attitude to free thinking and obsequience to authority hurt its scientific progress.
“Freedom of expression is very sensitive and very crucial,” he said. “I think it is a real issue. The scientific culture in China is quite different from Europe and the U.S. There is a much higher respect for authority, and in science this is not good.”
A Royal Society report on the global science landscape published in 2011 found 70 percent of the 1.06 million Chinese who studied abroad between 1978 and 2006 did not return. Scientists say that figure has fallen but estimate around half of all who study abroad still stay away.
Beijing is trying to change that. China’s government-sponsored Thousand Talents Program, set up in 2008, has convinced some 600 overseas Chinese and foreign academics to return to China with promises of what Premier Wen Jiabao has described as “talent-favorable policies in households, medical care and the education of children.”
That’s a good start, but the biggest challenge of all these programs is attracting people who are willing to move back to China permanently, Chen said from Sweden. “It’s not only about the salary, which is the focus of many of these programs. I think it’s a little bit naïve to think in that way.”
The OECD estimates China spends about $154 billion a year on research and development, up from just $30 billion a decade ago with an accelerating trend in recent years. That amount is still only half the EU spend of $300 billion and is dwarfed by $400 billion for the United States.
The investment is starting to pay off. According to Britain’s national science academy The Royal Society, China has overtaken the UK as the second leading producer of published scientific research and could surpass the United States as early as next year.
The number of patent filings is rocketing. According to data from the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office, China registered 1,655 patents in the United States in 2009, up from just 52 in 1989 and 90 in 1999. And the proportion of science and engineering doctoral graduates pouring out of China’s universities, at over 55 percent according to the OECD, rivals the best rates in OECD member countries.
But just as Chen says, it’s not all about the money. Chinese scientists are offered lucrative incentives to publish - equivalent to several years’ salary for a paper that reaches a top international academic journal - which Chinese scientists in the West argue have skewed the research effort towards quantity rather than quality, leading to a series of damaging scandals involving plagiarism and the falsification of data.
Dig into the numbers and a more nuanced view emerges.
China may be prolific, but the number of papers by Chinese scientists that are published in such top journals as Nature and Science is still far behind that in the West. China also manages far fewer citations in papers that result from international collaboration.
According to data gathered by the OECD, China produced 285,000 papers in 2009. That’s about 0.2 papers per 1,000 head of the population. Just 0.05 percent were published in top journals.
By comparison, the United States published 473,000 papers, or 1.6 for every 1,000 people. More than half made it into top journals. The figures for the UK, which punches above its weight, are 134,000 papers, just over 2 per 1,000 people, with more than half in top journals.
Tiny Switzerland, which spends about $10.5 billion a year on research and development, produces nearly 4 per 1,000 people; more than half appear in top journals.
Worldwide, the 50 universities with the best publishing performance are concentrated in a handful of countries, according to the OECD. Unsurprisingly, the United States, home to 40 of the top 50 in a range of fields, dominates. China has just six in the top 50 for Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics plus Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, rated among the best for computer science, engineering and chemistry.
The main factor hurting progress, says environmental scientist Peng Gong, is China’s cultural history.
Gong holds posts at both Tsinghua University in China and the University of California, Berkeley. In January, he wrote an outspoken column for Nature that argued Chinese science is held back by a culture that discourages curiosity and collaboration.
“Two cultural genes have passed through generations of Chinese intellectuals for more than 2,000 years,” he wrote. “The first is the thoughts of Confucius, who proposed that intellectuals should become loyal administrators. The second is the writings of Zhuang Zhou, who said that a harmonious society would come from isolating families so as to avoid exchange and conflict, and by shunning technology to avoid greed.”
Gong argued that a lack of collaboration and a poor division of labor has led to small research groups duplicating expensive equipment purchases, doing the same analysis and being reluctant to share with rivals. The result is wasted time, money and effort.
Cong Cao, a scholar of Chinese science policy at Britain’s University of Nottingham, said intense competition has also had the unintended consequence of locking out foreign talent. Cao says the upper echelons of Chinese science are often fearful of competition that could threaten their status.
“In the past they tended to turn good people away,” said Cao.
He believes the country needs to spend more of its growing science budget on basic research, which he estimates gets only 5 percent of funds right now, losing out to development projects that focus on commercial applications. And he argues that China needs more transparency in the way funds are awarded, a better system of peer review and less direct patronage.
China can still teach the West a thing or two, as those lobbying to defend science spending in Europe are quick to point out.
The sovereign debt crisis in Europe, which has prompted governments across the EU to trim budgets, is causing what Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research Innovation and Science, calls an “innovation emergency”.
“Almost all the member states have improved their innovation performance,” she said in a speech in March. “However, progress is patchy across Europe and the pace of change is still too slow to catch up with the United States, the innovation leader.
“Without concerted action, we risk falling further behind, while China continues to close the gap.”
Others argue China’s rise should not be seen as a threat.
“These are additional people doing science rather than replacing people,” said Martyn Poliakoff, a Fellow of The Royal Society and one of the authors of its 2011 science report.
“The rise of science in China is not quite the same as manufacturing or producing zip fasteners in China. There are a certain number of pairs of trousers in the world but the market for science is not limited.”
Poliakoff says there are certain aspects of science that may move from West to East as China develops its scientific capabilities. For example, a colleague of his sent fruit flies to China to get their genes sequenced more cheaply.
The challenge for a country like Britain, he says, will be to keep the large number of foreign scientists who work there.
“Over the last few years we have had an increasing number of foreign scientists working in the UK; the conditions for doing science are good. They can go back or go to another country if things change,” Poliakoff said.
Scientists do not have much time for national borders - a strength in Poliakoff’s view. He recalls that his 60th birthday was celebrated with colleagues in a room containing 25 nationalities.
“In general I think the participation of China in science should be welcomed and it isn’t something we should be frightened of.”
Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith