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Barun Roy: 'Mainland' for innovation

China is going all out to become a global scientific power

Barun Roy 

As the balance of global research and development activity tilts towards Asia, is making sure it occupies a position at its centre. According to “Science and Engineering Indicators 2012”, a biennial report produced on behalf of the US National Science Foundation, 10 Asian countries, collectively, have surpassed the US in terms of total research and development (R&D) investments, with a 32 per cent global share, against 31 per cent of the US; and already contributes 12 per cent of the global total, against Japan's 11 per cent. in R&D are predicted to rise 5.2 per cent this year to $1.4 trillion.

Besides and Japan, the Asian league includes India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. But it's the China story that's grabbing the most attention. In real terms, China's R&D spending is growing at an exceptionally high rate of about 20 per cent a year and its commitment to R&D could go up from 1.7 per cent now to 2.5 per cent in the next few years.

Also significant, given an R&D obsession that the US Council on Foreign Affairs finds “laser-focussed,” is China's new approach to foreign academic collaboration. Aware that universities and research institutions in the West are now more R&D-active than private companies, as studies of global patent filings show, the Chinese have now decided to partner only those institutions that they believe would better serve their larger developmental goals.

This wasn't the case earlier. In 1995, when China first allowed foreign universities to come in, interaction was seen necessary to improve standards of higher education. In the flush of that policy, more than 1,200 foreign institutions came to establish academic programmes in the country, some of which were later weeded out.

The Chinese now see foreign universities as a source of innovation, wooing mainly those institutions that have acknowledged research strengths. They're prepared to pay foreign teachers very competitive salaries, even double of what, say, they could expect back home. Shenzhen, for example, is offering between $100,000 and $200,000 a year for a business management research professor, which many find quite lucrative. Besides, there are generous offers of donations and land.

The University of Nottingham, which already runs an undergraduate campus in Ningbo, a port city in Zhejiang province, couldn't say no to a request to open an R&D campus in when a wealthy Chinese philanthropist pledged substantial donations and the government offered enough land to house a 4,000-student facility. The specific objective of this campus would be to work on such subjects as drug development, stem-cell research and regenerative medicine.

Also in Pudong, New York University is putting up a liberal arts college for 3,000 students in collaboration with East China National University, due to open next year. Duke University is building a campus in Kunshan in the Yangtze River Delta to offer graduate and professional programmes in management, finance and public health. Other high-profile recent initiatives include Purdue's collaboration with Tsinghua University and China Agricultural University in Beijing; Michigan's biotechnology and renewable energy projects with Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Chicago's centre in Beijing to support collaboration of students and scholars; a similar programme announced by Stanford for this year at Peking University; and UC Berkeley's proposed engineering research and teaching facility in Shanghai.

There are now 17 branch campuses in China set up by foreign universities and seven more are said to be in the works.

China's immediate goal, as many Western observers have noted, is to become an “innovative nation” by 2020. The ultimate ambition, however, is to be a “global scientific power” by 2050. With that end in mind, Beijing's Medium and Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science, unveiled in 2006, has outlined 20 science and engineering mega-projects in such areas as high-end generic chips, manned aerospace and moon exploration, developmental biology, and nanotechnology. According to the Centre for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, at least 5,000 scientists are at work in China on nanotechnology alone and over 650 nanotechnology-related projects are being funded by China's National Science Foundation.

Backing it all up is China's tremendous recent growth in science and engineering education, producing some 2.2 million graduates every year. There's also the boost coming from tens of thousands of Chinese students studying in the West, many of whom have returned home to assume leading roles in universities, research institutes and corporations. In terms of publishing papers related to science and technology, China is now second in the world, after the US.

While some Americans have qualms about cooperating with a government whose human rights record is questionable, and others have doubts if such help won't ultimately end up speeding China's military modernisation, it's generally agreed that cooperation will actually help Western universities and institutes sharpen their global competitive edge. After all, cooperation is a two-way street that favours both the giver and the taker.  

First Published: Thu, February 09 2012. 00:56 IST