Guardian: China’s great leap forward in science


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Dec 29, 2010
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I first met Xiaogang Peng in the summer of 1992 at Jilin University in Changchun, in the remote north-east of China, where he was a postgraduate student in the department of chemistry. He told me that his dream was to get a place at a top American lab. Now, Xiaogang was evidently smart and hard-working – but so, as far as I could see, were most Chinese science students. I wished him well, but couldn’t help thinking he’d set himself a massive challenge.

Fast forward four years to when, as an editor at Nature, I publish a paper on nanotechnology from world-leading chemists at the University of California at Berkeley. Among them was Xiaogang. That 1996 paper now appears in a 10-volume compendium of the all-time best of Nature papers being published in translation in China.

I watched Xiaogang go on to forge a solid career in the US, as in 2005 he became a tenured professor at the University of Arkansas. But when I recently had reason to get in touch with Xiaogang again, I discovered that he had moved back to China and is now at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou – one of the country’s foremost academic institutions.

For Xiaogang, it seems that America was no longer the only land of opportunity. These days, Chinese scientists stand at least as good a chance of making a global impact on science from within China itself.

The economic rise of China has been accompanied by a waxing of its scientific prowess. In January, the United States National Science Foundation reported that the number of scientific publications from China in 2016 outnumbered those from the US for the first time: 426,000 versus 409,000. Sceptics might say that it’s about quality, not quantity. But the patronising old idea that China, like the rest of east Asia, can imitate but not innovate is certainly false now. In several scientific fields, China is starting to set the pace for others to follow. On my tour of Chinese labs in 1992, only those I saw at the flagship Peking University looked comparable to what you might find at a good university in the west. Today the resources available to China’s top scientists are enviable to many of their western counterparts. Whereas once the best Chinese scientists would pack their bags for greener pastures abroad, today it’s common for Chinese postdoctoral researchers to get experience in a leading lab in the west and then head home where the Chinese government will help them set up a lab that will eclipse their western competitors.

“The startup packages for researchers in good universities in China can be significantly higher than Hong Kong universities can offer,” says Che Ting Chan, a physicist at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology in what was previously China’s affluent and westernised neighbour. “They provide more lab space and can help settle the spouse.” That, he notes ruefully, “makes recruiting young faculty staff increasingly challenging here.” Other well-off east Asian countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, are feeling the competition too.

The Chinese authorities are pursuing scientific dominance with systematic resolve. The annual expenditure on research and development in China increased from 1995 to 2013 by a factor of more than 30, and reached $234bn in 2016. The number of international publications coming out of China has remained in step with this rise. “Money is plentiful to certain Chinese researchers, possibly more so than to their competitors, especially if it means gaining an edge,” says stem-cell biologist Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London.

The ultimate aim is to develop a homegrown, innovative research environment, says Mu-Ming Poo of the Institute of Neuroscience of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai. “The government is beginning to recognise that big investment and recruitment of talent from abroad are not sufficient. We need to build infrastructure and mechanisms that facilitate innovation within China.” That’s not easy, and won’t happen fast. “Officially, government leaders say that taking risks is allowed, but the system of evaluating scientists and projects, and the philosophy and methods of instruction in university curricula, aren’t compatible with this policy.”

China’s strength also comes down to sheer numbers, though. “There is always a certain fraction of talented people who are innovative,” says Chan. “China has the advantage of having a lot of people.”

One of the more controversial 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. The highest prize on offer was as much as $165,000 for a single paper, up to 20 times a typical university professor’s annual salary.

According to quantum physicist Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, as a relative latecomer to the global scientific stage, China needs such incentives as a way of maintaining enthusiasm. Chan adds that “the rewarding system is transparent, and the expectation of the senior administration is clearly spelled out. Most of my friends in China don’t see this as a problem – many feel that any formula, even if it’s simple and naive, is better than no formula.”

But could it not tempt researchers to cheat – fabricate or cherrypick results so that they can claim a dramatic discovery? The 2016 study of cash incentives also reported a rise in plagiarism, ghostwritten papers and other dishonest attempts to get published. Poo says that, whatever the case, the practice of cash incentives is not widespread. “Only a few low-level research institutions are doing this, not the Chinese Academy of Sciences or top universities,” he says. He thinks that problems with scientific misconduct and fraud in China have more to do with poor quality control or lack of punitive measures.

However, the pattern seems clear, and is worth heeding by other nations: despite China’s reputation for authoritarian and hierarchical rule, in science the approach seems to be to ensure that top researchers are well supported with funding and resources, and then to leave them to get on with it.




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