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Chinese science rising. There will be innovation.

By Dan Harris in 'China Law Blog'

I went to a dinner the other day, attended by a neighbor who is one of the world's foremost experts in some niche area related to cleaning up land sites contaminated by oil. We got to talking about China and he talked of how "about half" the published scientific material he is seeing these days comes from China. I made some comment about quantity not quality, and he immediately shot me down, saying that what he was reading from Chinese scientists was as good as what he was reading from non-Chinese scientists.  He then told me of a professor friend of his in some other niche scientific area who had just been saying how in his area Chinese scientists were doing about 50% of the leading research.

I was somewhat stunned because this goes against the old bromide that we cannot expect innovation in China.

China is doing whatever it can to improve its scientific research and it seems to be working. A recent article, "The Spark Rises in the East," by China Challenges) talks of how China "could soon lead the world in scientific research," due in large part to Chinese government funding/encouragement:

Science is rising in the east. China's strategies for economic development, which are centred on creating a world-beating science base, don't sound like much. They go by odd names: the 863 Programme and Project 211, for instance, and the Torch and Spark programmes. But they are proving to be more powerful than even the Chinese government could have hoped.

Last year, following a decade of phenomenal growth, China became the second-biggest producer of scientific knowledge in the world. In 1998, Chinese scientists published about 20,000 articles. In 2009, they produced more than 120,000. Only the US turns out more.

According to figures released this year by the US National Science Foundation, there are now as many researchers working in China as there are working in the US or the EU. The state is encouraging Chinese scientists trained in the west to return home, offering them enormous salaries and access to world-class laboratories. In 2008, for example, the molecular biologist Yigong Shi, one of Princeton University's rising stars, walked away from a $10m research grant to set up a lab at Tsinghua University in Beijing. In January, the Chinese equivalent of the US National Institutes of Health was unveiled with £150m in its pockets, which will be distributed to new medical research projects.

China's rise in science is already impacting the West.

Canny European and North American scientists are already reaching out to China. The number of east-west collaborations has doubled in the past five years and organisations such as the UK Research Councils, the British Council and the US National Science Foundation have made brokering such partnerships a priority.

According to Rainer Spurzem, an astronomer at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the National Astronomical Observatories of China, collaboration with Chinese research­ers is important because science in China is growing so fast. Not to pull these scientists into the international research effort "would be a loss for all sides", says Spurzem.

Those who don't collaborate with their Chinese peers risk becoming second-rate. Given the sheer volume of Chinese researchers, they will come to dominate various fields; only through collaboration will western scientists know what is going on behind the scenes. "If you've missed out on the background thinking behind published papers, you don't know what was tried and dropped," Adams says.

Though China is doing the right things on funding, it still has room for improvement when it comes to "attitude, atmosphere, synergy, culture." According to various scientists, "the western tradition embraces adversarial debate, while the eastern approach is characterised by Confucianism's search for harmony:"

If China is serious about conquering the world of science, its culture will have to change, Wang says, because the less hierarchical western tradition produces better results. "At the moment, when a well-respected senior scientist gives a seminar in China, you don't often see junior scientists stand up and criticise the ideas," he says. But this is how scientists make progress. "In science, by its very nature, young people come up with new ideas; one generation passes another. This is something that the Chinese need to achieve."

The article goes on to note how Western and Chinese scientists can benefit from the other:

[T]here are upsides to the differences between east and west. Chinese scientists will bring a fresh approach to western research. "The analysis of a problem, what they think of as the most interesting element and the tools they use will be an important part of development of some fields," Adams says. In the short term, however, great innovation is unlikely. For the next few years, China's dominance will be most visible in areas related to its economic well-being.

Is what is true of pure science also becoming true of product innovation?  What do you think?

Dan Harris is founder of the Harris & Moure law firm, a boutique international law firm focusing on small and medium sized businesses that operate internationally. China is the fastest growing area for the firm. Dan writes as a source of China legal and business information.

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