What Happens When Science is Made in China? – Mara Hvistendahl

From Seed Magazine:

For decades, China was barely a blip on the scientific radar. Communism’s arbitrary appointments, combined with the Cultural Revolution’s disdain for education, crippled Chinese science. But today China is in the midst of a scientific revolution. China’s current economic and political strategy, as named by President Hu Jintao at a recent Central Committee meeting, is the “scientific development concept.” The idea is to balance economic growth with attention to China’s growing social issues, many of which could be better tackled with the tools that science and technology provide. On the ground, it means that China is developing the sciences now, in the same rapid, breathtaking way that China overhauled its economy.

China analyst David Cowhig sent the following reading notes from three overviews of Chinese science published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2005. Cowhig writes “I found the books very informative since they give the inside view — Chinese views on the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese science.” All the books are available from the Chinese online bookstore, Dangdang.com.

Gleanings from “The Influence of Chinese Science” — a study by the Chinese Academy of Science

The Science Citation Index charts the rapid rise in Chinese highly cited scientific publications. The average citation rates for Chinese papers appearing in high impact journals is considerably lower than the international average, reflecting a continuing quality lag.

The rate of Chinese patent applications at patent offices in Europe and the U.S. is very low, reflecting difficulty in transforming scientific work into innovative technology.

Much of the best scientific publications by Chinese scientists is done by Chinese at U.S., European or Japanese universities. Many of the top Chinese scientists cited have multiple affiliations such as China, Taiwan; China, U.S.; or even China, Taiwan, U.S.

(Pp. 25 – 29) The dominance the Chinese Academy of Science has had over Chinese science is declining as some universities, led by Tsinghua University and Peking University but also by Zhejiang, Xi’an Jiaotong, Chinese S&T, Fudan, Shanghai Jiaotong, Harbin Industrial, Wuhan, and Xiamen universities. Chapters on various scientific fields compare the number of citations of Chinese publications in many subfields.

“Influence” doesn’t confine itself to the Institute for Scientific Information’s Science Citation Index but also examines many other indices of S&T work such as the Derwent Innovations Index (based on patent filings in many countries), the INSPEC (Information Service for Physics, Electronics and Computing (UK) and Chemical Abstracts.

“Influence” combines analysis of ten year and year-by-year international rankings of individuals and institutions in the SCI and other indices to outline, field by field, where Chinese science stands. (Pp. 30 – 31) Over the period examined, 1993 – 2003, the rate of increase in citations of work by Chinese scientists and engineers in many fields was much higher than for any other country. Chinese contributions to the international literature were most significant in chemistry, physics, materials science and engineering science. Judging by average citations per article in various fields, Chinese science had the greatest relative influence in mathematics and materials science and the least in agriculture and the life sciences.

The proportion of Chinese contributions was least in clinical medicine, molecular biology and genetics, neuroscience, behavioral science, immunology, psychopathology/psychology, and agricultural science. For both China and Russia, the rate of patent applications compared with other countries was significantly less than the rate of citation of scientific articles.

[Comment: The Science Citation Index, although it is one useful method of measuring achievement in world science, can be misleading if looked at in isolation as a Nature editorial pointed out recently (June 23, 2005). Nature pointed out that the citation index varies by type of content (review articles and the last article on a project are the most cited. Nature noted that the variation in citations in Nature varied from less than 20 to 1000, with many very good papers getting less than 20 citations. Thus citations are a very rough index but should be taken with reserve. The Chinese S&T system√ÖC since it is highly politicized and does not have the strong professional associations that protect professional autonomy, seems to take the SCI more seriously than it is in the West. End comment]

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Gleanings from the Chinese Academy of Sciences 2005 Science Development Report

World and Chinese developments in many S&T fields are surveyed. Special survey articles examine topics such as the safety of nanomaterials, funding — 973 plan 2004 spent 900 million RMB (USD 100 million), the National Natural Science Foundation of China in 2004 approved projects worth 3 billion RMB (USD 300 million).

Innovation Drives Development, Science’s Role in China’s Future — Strategic Thinking on the Development of Chinese S&T

(p. 144 – 157)

In the midst of a complex, constantly changing international environment, we are building a society that provides a decent standard of living [xiaokang shehui] for over one billion people. Information technology and other rapidly advancing fields of science and technology are accelerating the growth and propagation of knowledge and the pace of innovation. Product cycles are getting shorter. Innovation capacity has become a decisive factor in national competitiveness.

The principal developed countries rely on their absolute superiority in economics, S&T, and military power to maintain their hegemonism and unilateralism. Regionalization is a new development that is becoming steadily more important. The Iraq War reveals a new revolution in military affairs demonstrating that modern warfare changed from mechanization to digitization and informatization. The foundation is advanced S&T, and at its core is control of information and control of the air. Barriers between civilian and military S&T have already broken down. Building national defense is an integral part of national economic development. S&T progress contributes to overall national security to include information security, economic security, financial security, resources security, environmental security and public health.

China is building, subject to various constraints, a society that provides a decent standing of living for over one billion people. China has basically completed the transition from a planned economy to a socialist market economy.

China is relatively poor in natural resources and faces ever increasing ecological and environmental pressure. China has just one-fifth the population/territory ratio of the US. Per capita arable land is just one-tenth the world average. Forty percent of China’s arable land has suffered from deterioration and 90% of its natural grassland is affected by deterioration to some extent. Per capita energy resources are half the world average. Annual river flow rates are just one quarter the world average. China is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Forty percent of China’s land is affected by acid rain.

China’s per capita GDP in 2002 was just 2.7% that of the US. Productivity is low and industry needs to be restructured. In 2002, 50% of China’s population is in the primary sector and 28 percent in the tertiary sector compared with 2.6% and 74% for the US.

China’s education level is relatively poor and the pressure on social security continues to grow. The average years of education of the Chinese population is 8 years compared with the world average of 11 years, the US average of 13.4 and the South Korean average of 12.3. China’s population is aging rapidly. China now has 17 percent of its higher education age population in school or taking classes [gaodeng jiaoyu maoruxuelu] compared with 61% average for the developed countries. People over 65 years are now 7% of the Chinese population. This group will grow by about 3 percent annually. Until 2010 China’s workforce will grow by 10 million people each year so the Chinese labor supply will exceed demand for a long time to come. Turning these people into a resource for China’s growth by finding jobs for them and improving the social security system are urgent tasks now facing China.

China needs to establish a new view on S&T development in order to build a society that provides a decent standard of living for over one billion people. Chinese S&T overall is backward compared with the developed countries. There are still serious problems in linking S&T work with industry to promote the development of S&T intensive high tech products.

Correctly handle the relationship between National Defense S&T Development and Civilian S&T Development (pp. 149 – 150)

S&T provides means to protect national security and also imposes new challenges. Some countries spread innovation from national defense to the entire country, greatly stimulating the development of civilian S&T and of high tech industry. Some other countries, while they build an impressive defense S&T sector which makes first class S&T achievements but wall it off from the rest of the economy so that it become a severe burden on the economy as a whole. Combining the civilian and military must be China’s policy. China should suitably open up its defense development sector to the outside and to the socialist market economy. A new national defense S&T system should be built that develops and adjusts to overall social and economic development.

In drawing up China’s national S&T development plans, the strategic needs of the national defense S&T construction should be fully considered. We should give priority to the development of strategic technologies that are strategic from a national security perspective as well as those that are strategic because they drive social and economic development. We need to actively plan for the research and development of military-civilian dual use technologies. China needs to accelerate the reform of the national defense industrial sector and make it more response to market forces. The military and the civilian sectors need to more closely bound and synergistically promote the development of both. China needs to establish systems to promote competition, evaluation, oversight and incentives to promote the spread of innovations from the national defense sector to the market sector and so accelerate the transformation of innovations into mass production.

China needs to keep abreast of development in world in fields such as information S&T including computer technology, artificial intelligence, network technologies, remote sensing, geographical information systems, and global positioning systems; life sciences including genomics and proteinomics; materials science; and environmental science and mathematics. We need to pay special attention to the life sciences in this post-genome age, to nanotechnology, to quantum information sciences, in research that is cross disciplinary or on the fringes of fields. China needs to do more world class research and create a breakthrough that will raise the number of Chinese Nobel prizewinners working in the China mainland above zero.

To promote innovation in S&T, China must overcome obstacles stemming from old, backward thinking. Obstacles to China’s S&T development include

– Outmoded traditional thinking that places books and theory far above experiment and practice,

– Thinking of only one’s own organization and not working with colleagues in other organizations, thinking only of investments but not of results, not thinking about competitiveness, and

– Neglecting the development of human talent; and

– Education needs to move away from teaching for the test to developing talents and character.

[p. 155] To promote innovation in S&T, China must discard old thinking left over from decades of the planned economy. Serious obstacles to innovation are hangovers from old centrally planned economy thinking.

– People look first to the government for support and ignore the market.

– The functional relations between government, enterprises and the market are still not clear. The boundary between public finance and the market in allocating resources is vague.

– Stovepiping and poor coordination between organizations at the same level remains serious [tiaokuai fenge].

– The allocation of S&T resources is still often done according to the old habits of the centrally planned economy. Resources are still sometimes allocated simply according to the wishes of a senior official.

– Stressing micromanagement instead of strategic planning is a major weakness.

– Excessive investment in projects while neglecting capacity building. Most organizations involved in S&T are unable to build the foundation for innovations and the capacity building needs for long-term development.

China needs to make a very firm decision to extirpate the problems resulting from holdovers of the old planned economic system. The key is changing the functions of government and reform the system for exercising macroeconomic control.

Just as in the market economy the government economic management departments no long directly manage the enterprises, so too the government S&T management departments should not directly manage S&T organization or S&T projects. The S&T management departments should rather strengthen long term S&T strategy research, strengthen policy planning and guidance, and improve macroeconomic control mechanisms so that S&T development will advance harmoniously with society and economy as a whole.

China needs a fair system for evaluating scientific work and for public oversight. More reforms are need in the system of allocation of resources for scientific work. Resources need to be allocated as a result of fair competition so that limited resources can produce the greatest possible scientific result and produce the greatest economic benefit.

Creation of a Chinese innovation system should move forward in step with the continuing progress of the socialist market economy, in accordance with China’s history and circumstances. Foreign methods and system cannot be imported wholesale and “shock therapy” that would harm China’s basic infrastructure and what has been achieved thus far is not an option.

The creation of a Chinese national innovation system must advance in accordance with the call of third session of the Sixteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Stress should be placed on S&T innovations that will serve the needs of strategic high technologies, fundamental research, and the public good. This will include a major effort to improve the public health and disease prevention S&T system, agriculture, resources, ecology and environment, research in the social sciences and public policy, S&T institutes for joint military-civilian research and national defense S&T research organizations, and research universities. Funding for the National Natural Science Foundation of China should be increased and the proportion of S&T funding for basic research should increase. In 2005, the 2002 level of S&T spending of 1% of GDP should grow to 1.5% of GDP. This level should climb to 2% of GDP in 2010 and to 3% of GDP in 2020. The proportion of public money in all Chinese R&D spend should decline but should not be less than half of all R&D spending in 2010.

(Pp. 175 – 176) Design of networks support for sharing 13 S&T databases among government departments and private enterprises was completed.

(Pp. 200 – 203) Chinese S&T articles in international journals increased by over 20% in during 2003. The 49,788 articles published by Chinese scientists and engineers in these high impact journals included in citation indices comprised 4.48% of the world total.

(pp. 204 – 209) Analysis of international co-authors with Chinese in articles in international S&T journals found that in 2003, 23 percent of the articles published by Chinese had a foreign co-author. Foreign co-authors were most frequently from the US followed by Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, UK, Canada, Australia, France, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Russia.

[Comment: Probably significant was the absence of much discussion of the role of the Ministry of Science and Technology. Many Chinese scientists hope it will be abolished. Possibly the section at the end of the chapter on national innovation systems decrying the drag the central planning economy mentality has on Chinese science was written with MOST in mind. On June 28, 2005, the head of the PRC Audit Commission cited MOST by name as having serious problems in moving funds to grantees. The PRC auditors found that of USD 100 million that MOST received in March 2004 as part of the central government budget to be distributed for specific projects, only 24% had been given to the research units involved by the end of 2004. The auditors said that the money just sat in government accounts all year. Of the money that did move, much of it was sent to the S&T grantees between December 25 and New Year's! The full Chinese text of the 2005 Audit Commission Report on the Execution of the 2004 budget is on the PRC Audit Commission website at http://www.audit.gov.cn In their 2004 report on the execution of the 2003 state budget, the Auditors dinged both MOST and the National Defense Science and Technology Commission last year for doing a very poor job in handling their budgets and distributing funds. End comment]

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Gleanings from the Chinese Academy of Sciences 2005 Technology Development Report

(p. 17) Superconductivity – In November 2004, the Western Superconducting Materials S&T Co. [Xibu Chaodao Ziliao Keji Youxian Gongsi] of Xi’an created a commercial product. In the second phase, the company will manufacture each year 300 tons of Nb-Ti low temperature superconductor wire and 100 tons of Nb3Sn superconducting wire.

(p. 22) Building on the success of the Chang’e I lunar orbiter project, which cost 1.4 billion RMB, China plans to put a two-ton scientific satellite into lunar orbit in 2007.

The Technology Development Report has chapters on topics such as the

(p. 39) Progress of Chinese biomass technology (Chinese scientists estimate that left over inedible materials after crop harvesting etc. could provide the equivalent of 450 million tons of coal annually).

(p. 55) Structural genetic research supported by the Ministry of Education underway at Beijing University and Qinghua University (as of December 2004, 217 purified proteins had been obtained and three dimensional structures of 65 proteins and compounds had been determined.) China’s leading scientist in the field is Academician Liang Dongcai of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.)

(Pp. 64 – 65) Protecting against disease causing microorganisms. After the founding of the PRC, an effective epidemic prevention system was established. Chinese scientists made important contributions to the world as for example, the creation of killed and attenuated live vaccines for Japanese encephalitis B and an attenuated live vaccine for hepatitis B. However, over the last twenty years, with the smashing of the old system and the new system not completely established, some disease causing microorganisms and parasites have made a comeback. Environmental change has played a part too – SARS is an example of that. China still has a long way to go to establish solid infrastructure for fighting disease causing microorganisms and supporting applied research.

– China needs to establish a facility for the prevention and research of foreign disease causing microorganisms that do not yet exist in China. Some diseases such as Ebola are serious problems in other countries and would cause severe loss of life and economic loss should they come to China. China needs to establish preventive research, on the condition that this does not involve manipulation of the disease agents themselves, to improve Chinese capabilities for diagnosis and prevention of these diseases.

– China needs to establish a diagnosis and warning system for commonly occurring and encountered disease agents. The current system is data-driven by the slow accumulation of reports and not oriented towards active epidemic monitoring and prevention. The severe weakness of the laboratory monitoring and warning stage means that China is not able to make accurate predictions of the outbreak of contagious diseases. The appearance of these diseases is often linked to changes in climate, environment or human transportation links. Therefore, creating a warning system requires the combination of pathologists, epidemiologists, statisticians and designers of new types of equipment.

– China needs to establish a routine warning system for chicken flu and other livestock diseases. The contagion of HN51 chicken flu to mammals and the appearance of SARS give us a warning. We need to conduct set up research and employ the technologies needed for long term monitoring of pathogens that could pass from one species to another. We need to produce research results that create theoretical results that can guide our disease prevention methods.

– China needs to develop molecular studies of pathogens used for immunizing groups of people and animals. In various stages of the vaccine production process attenuated live pathogens or even in early stages highly virulent pathogens are used as raw material. This creates the danger for the spread of disease since the pathogen remains in the environment. Molecular biology can produce vaccines that do not use live pathogens and so can prevent the problem of long-term persistence of the pathogen where the disease has been brought under control.

– China needs to build up its capacity to produce vaccines and therapeutic drugs as well as to get big biotechnology companies involved, to gradually move into line with international practice [zhubu yu guoji guanlie jiegui]. The participation of state R&D units and private companies are equally important.

(Pp. 71 – 73) Nanotechnology

Chinese nanotech research is supported by the 973, the 863, and the State S&T Strategic Plan [Guojia Keji Gongguan Jihua]. Work on nanotech materials including research at Qinghua University on artificial bone and synthetic tissue; protein optical chips studied at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Kinetics; molecular motors studied at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Physics Institute; nanomedicine research on using magnetized nanoparticles to treat liver cancer underway at Zhongnan University since 1994; nanomaterials and microscopy of biological molecules and their manipulation.

(p. 80) Biological materials — China researchers have long done work on biodegradable materials, especially PHA.

p. 94 biotechnology will be essential to increasing the productivity of Chinese agriculture as China population grows to 1.6 billion by 2030 and per capita consumption of meat continues to increase.

(Pp. 144 – 169) “Evaluating the International Competitiveness of the Chinese Pharmaceutical Industry”

During 1998 – 2003 Chinese pharmaceutical industry production increased in value by an average of 16% annually. Lower than Chinese high tech industry in general but above the average GDP growth rate. Shanghai Pharmaceutical [Shanghai Yiyao] was by far the largest Chinese pharmaceutical company, but even at USD 1.4 billion in annual sales it was even 5% the size of pharmaceutical giant Merck. The Chinese pharmaceutical market is not as open as other sectors to foreigners so there is much potential for opening it up. Although the labor productivity of Chinese pharmaceutical companies is above the Chinese average (but below Chinese high tech firms in general), it is just 1/30th the level of developed company pharmaceutical companies. Chinese pharmaceutical companies spend relatively little on R&D – only about 1/4th to 1/5th the proportion of R&D spending to sales as developed country counterparts.

Chinese pharmaceutical companies have new opportunities as living standards rise and with them the demand for drugs. Regulation of the industry is improving, creating a fairer and more open competitive environment; intellectual property protection is improving thereby increasing incentives for Chinese companies to innovate; globalization and the fast pace of science and technology make possible leapfrog development of the pharmaceutical industry. Chinese companies are finding opportunities for large-scale production as OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) on behalf of foreign companies.

China’s High Tech Industry: Competitiveness and Trends

(pp. 170 – 188)

Labor productivity in Chinese high tech in 2003 was one third higher than in manufacturing as a whole. Valued added (24.9%) and profits (7.13%) were lower than manufacturing as a whole however. Chinese computer equipment and office equipment had 70% higher labor productivity than the Chinese manufacturing average but lower value added and profitability because it occupies the lower end of the international market in these goods.

Labor productivity in Chinese high tech is about one tenth the level of the U.S. Chinese high tech manufacturing by value in 2001 at USD 148 billion only behind the US and Japan but was much lower as a proportion of GDP than in the most developed countries such as the US, Japan and South Korea. High tech manufacturing by value vs. GDP was 4.3% in 2003. In 2000, Chinese high tech manufacturing was just 9.3% of the total value added for Chinese manufacturing.

Chinese high tech is getting an increasing share of the world market but a declining share of the domestic market. In 2000, Chinese high tech companies had 4.1% of the world market, one-fifth the share of the US share. In 2002, Chinese high tech companies had 10.3% of the US market. The Chinese share was higher in photo-optical (34%) and communications equipment (16%). Chinese high tech products don’t do as well on the world market as the do in the U.S. market. Among US trading partners, calculation of the revealed comparative advantage index (an index which totals up ratios of bilateral imports and exports for various sectors) for 2003 put China in sixth place with Singapore and Ireland on top. Calculation for various fields found that Chinese high tech exports are most competitive in photo-optical and communications equipment; about average in weapons; and least competitive in biotechnology and aerospace.

“Issues in Building a National Innovation System”

(Pp. 190 – 197)

Studies of national system of innovation have gotten much attention since Christopher Freeman proposed a framework for research on national innovation systems. From the 1980s onwards, in various projects such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences Innovation Project, the 985 project, the establishment of state key laboratories, productivity promotion centers, technology transfer centers have gradually created a national innovation system that is becoming more suited to the needs of the market economy.

R&D investment by Chinese enterprises is increasing rapidly. Total investment for technological innovation by Chinese enterprises in 2003 totaled 96 billion RMB (about USD 10 billion) 62% of the PRC total. That year state research institutes and universities contributed 26% and 10% of the total funds invested in technological innovation. In 2003, China’s 22,276 large and medium-sized enterprises spent 159 billion RMB on S&T expenses (keji jingfei) and increase of 5% over 2002 and 46% of the national total. In 2003, the enterprise R&D workforce totaled 656,100, about 60% of the national total. In 2003, there R&D workers at state research institutes and at institutions of higher education were 19% and 17% of the total R&D workforce. Patent applications by Chinese enterprises rose 48% to 54,869 in 2003. Breaking down patent application categories, invention patents [faming zhuanli] rose 131%, design patents rose 30% and external appearance patents rose 57%.

Cooperation between enterprises and institutions of higher education has grown rapidly over the past several years. During 1999 – 2003, S&T work fees received by institutions of higher education from enterprises rose from 5.3 billion RMB to 11.2 billion RMB.

Nonetheless, there are serious shortcomings to China’s national innovation system. There are problems with services to help turn S&T work into results and the allocation of national funding to support S&T is far from optimal. Sometimes researchers become shortsighted if they get too close to the market. Another serious problem is that companies facing severe competition look first to purchase foreign technology rather than investing in developing technology and technology development capacity at home in China. Many of the patent applications come from medium sized enterprises (70%) since small enterprises don’t invest enough in research.

Chinese patent applications are proportionately lower than the leading industrial countries and overall the level of Chinese technological innovation is still quite low. China needs to improve its laws and regulations; improve technical services that will improve the transfer to S&T into products; and improvement in the financial sector that will help finance innovations.

The statistics used in this Chinese Academy of Sciences report are from the China Science and Technology Statistics Yearbook [Zhongguo Keji Tongji Nianjian], published by the China Statistics Publishing House, 2004.

December 3, 2005 4:08 PM
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