China Aims To Renew Status As Scientific Superpower

A three-part series by Louisa Lim at NPR explores China’s quest for scientific prestige. Frequently, it emerges, this is marked by impressive but superficial figures such as raw numbers of papers published, rather than genuinely substantial progress.

Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, one of the world’s richest stem cell research organizations, recently visited China for the first time in five years ….

“I’m rocked … with what this country can do in such a short time. So imagine the next five years or next 10, and I would think it’s very likely the science here will be the dominant science, probably in the world,” he adds.

But in terms of pure numbers, China still has a long way to go before it catches up with the U.S.

“If we compare in absolute dollars, the Chinese are spending about a third or a little bit more than what the U.S. is putting into science and technology development,” says the University of Oregon’s Denis Simon, putting the figures in context.

While spending is growing at an average of 20% per year, a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that, behind a veil of surging patent filings, China’s science investment was not producing real results in proportion to its quantity. One reason for this inefficiency is widespread plagiarism by Chinese researchers, an issue explored in the third part of the series:

In 2008, when her scientific publication, the Journal of Zhejiang University-Science, became the first in China to use CrossCheck text analysis software to spot plagiarism, Zhang was pleased to be a trailblazer. But when the first set of results came in, she was upset and horrified.

“In almost two years, we find about 31 percent of papers with unreasonable copy[ing] and plagiarism,” she says, shaking her head. “This is true ….”

Wang Lingyun has [one] explanation for the rampant plagiarism and copying: political hierarchy … “China is still a society of official standard thought,” he says. “Everything is run by officials, and a higher-rank official can crush a lower rank. Many academics who commit plagiarism are also officials, so they’re seldom held responsible. Words from people of a lower rank mean little.”

The second instalment focuses on China’s supercomputers, one of which, Tianhe-1A, was for six months the worlds fastest. But one expert at the Chinese Academy of Science dismisses it as a glorified games machine, citing a lack of software optimised to use all of its (US-made) processors.

Today, China boasts 61 out of the top 500 supercomputing sites in the world — making it second only to the U.S., which has 255.

“The striking thing is, back in 2001, China had zero computers on the list,” says Jack Dongarra from the University of Tennessee, who helps compile the top 500 list. “So China very quickly grew its high-performance computing capabilities, and are now No. 2 on the list in terms of the number of high-performance computers deployed ….”

However, China lags far behind the U.S. in software development. Computer scientists in China say just 10 percent of Beijing’s investment goes to software. And a lack of applications that use its own machines could hamper China’s supercomputer development.

Dongarra, of the University of Tennessee, says it’s still too early to tell whether China’s most powerful supercomputer is simply an expensive white elephant.