The rise of ‘China R&D plc’ – tomorrow’s global innovator

A new research report from Thomson Reuters titled, CHINA, Research and collaboration in the new geography of science highlights how significant the R&D shift is from West to East.

The report notes the following key trends:

  • China now ranks just behind the USA and Japan in terms of volume it allocates for Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD). China is now ranked above all the individual member states of the EU and is the largest contributor to GERD in non-OECD countries;
  • China’s output increased from just over 20,000 research papers in 1998 to nearly 112,000 in 2008, The nation doubled its output since 2004 alone. China surpassed Japan, the UK and Germany in 2006 and now stands second only to the USA;
  • China is heading to overtake the USA in output within the next decade;
  • China’s research is concentrated in the physical sciences and technology. Materials science, chemistry and physics predominate. Looking toward the future, rapid growth can be seen in agricultural sciences and life sciences fields such as immunology, microbiology, and molecular biology and genetics;
  • The USA stands out in terms of collaboration with China., US-based authors contributed to nearly 9 percent of papers from China-based institutions between 2004 and 2008;
  • But, regional collaboration expansion is notable, especially with Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia.

As the report authors note these trends are of enormous importance:

China’s new areas of investment take it along a different path. What is evident in the Thomson Reuters data is the pattern of rapid growth now in areas where China has had less presence in the past: biological and medical sciences. If growth is as rapid and substantial and the outcomes are as effective as they have been in other fields then the impact of this new research on gene and protein research and process innovation will be profound and pervasive.

China is not hanging about

The report demonstrates that China is not sitting around waiting for initiatives to come from the West or anywhere else. It’s just getting on with it. The research China is undertaking in the physical sciences and technology, with Materials Science, Chemistry, and Physics predominant might be seen as a pattern of the past. After all, these are areas of China’s traditional core strength rooted as they are in an economy which still has a preponderance of heavy industry and primary manufacturing. But the levels of investment in materials and related physical sciences is providing China with a strong innovation platform for modernizing these industries today and more so in the future.

More importantly, looking to the future, the notable growth areas are grouped in areas like Agricultural Sciences (the highest growth area which is understandable for the world’s most populous nation and its future food demands). But new areas are emerging too: life-sciences such as Immunology, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology & Genetics are expanding the most rapidly in terms of research paper output.

Long-term view not short-term pragmatism

The overwhelming picture the report presents is a country that is looking to the long-term. The levels of investment in higher education attests to a strong belief in the need to provide indigenous research capacities. The growth of China’s Higher education system over the past 25 years mentioned in the report is impressive:

  • The current number of students studying in Chinese universities has reached 25 million, a five-fold increase in only nine years;
  • There are more than 1,700 standard institutions of higher education;
  • 6% of them are Project 211 institutions (targeted as top universities), which take on the responsibility of training four-fifths of doctoral students, two-thirds of graduate students, half of students abroad, and one-third of undergraduates;
  • These institutions offer 85% of the State’s key subjects, hold 96% of the State’s key laboratories, and utilize 70% of scientific research funding.

An Asia-Pacific research base?

The report notes that the USA still stands out in terms of frequency of collaboration and co-authorship of research papers, with US-based authors contributing to nearly 9% of papers from China- based institutions between 2004 and 2008. It notes that the roster of contributing nations has remained largely stable between the five-year periods, although Italy and Russia have slipped slightly in recent years, while Sweden and the Netherlands have moved higher. Aside from Japan, Singapore currently occupies the highest rung of regional collaborators.

And it is this expanding regional research base that is really worth noting. As the report notes ‘Asia-Pacific nations are entirely happy to work with another’s (sic) excellent research bases now. They no longer depend on links to traditional G8 partners to help their knowledge development’.

This report highlights that China is rapidly developing a research capacity and a regional collaboration network that means it is developing an innovation capacity for the future which will no longer depend upon technology transfers from the West. It is not a question of quantity. China’s research into new materials will not only solve its problems, but perhaps provide the know-how to innovate for the entire world in this and other spheres.

As research spending declines in the West, this report highlights that we are going to be looking to the East to innovate to solve many of the key problems we will encounter in the Twenty First Century.

4 thoughts on “The rise of ‘China R&D plc’ – tomorrow’s global innovator

  1. It is a promising piece of news, especially for us Chinese. I’ve seen R&D pace going faster in China over recent years. However I’m less optimistic on the Chinese takeover on R&D some time soon.

    Point is, you can’t just look at number of research papers to judge R&D capability, esp. on the “D” part. Infrastructure to commercialize research outcomes in China is still way behind compared to the US, Japan and some in Europe. Highest quality researches which are likely to bare significant industrial applicability are pretty much dominated by few universities and national labs much of which are government-led.

    Another big question mark is on the statistics. Numbers sometimes can be misleading. Especially the case in China. Academic dishonesty, plagiarism is very serious. If you look at the number of graduate, here is a old report from Duke on engineering outsourcing, and I quote:

    “However, a recent McKinsey global labor market study argues that this estimate is far too generous. McKinsey concluded that only 10% of Chinese engineers and 25% of Indian engineers can compete in the global outsourcing arena. McKinsey attributed these figures to limited language proficiency, educational quality, cultural issues, job accessibility and the attractiveness of domestic non-outsourced jobs.”

    I guess the argument people really make and scare themselves is that a tiny fraction of a massive amount is still a reasonable quantity. True, but we must not fail to see the cost China is paying to gain such small fraction – we waste too much money to make so much money.

    1. Thanks for your comments Ran. I do agree with you and Joe Kaplinsky about the danger of quantitative measures versus qualitative ones. As I replied to Joe’s post, the key point is the tendencies and the dynamic being observed. I’m sure you are right about the waste of money, etc, but when I compare risk aversion in both East and West, I see important differences. This newsweek article makes some good points highlighting the relative changes in dynamism between China and the USA:
      A lot of American discussion about the quality of Chinese graduates is self-serving and acts to flatter the US rather than address the secular decline in the disciplines of science, maths and engineering in the USA. The argument needs to be balanced and nuanced. The point however, is that a dynamic (upwards or downwards) is not easy to stop or slow down. History will tell.

  2. Careful of Thomson Reuters. They count publications instead of reading them. I wouldn’t deny that that the increase in Chinese publication is important, but the quality of those publications is also critical and it I don’t think it has increased as quickly.

    That said, it’s true China is strong on inorganic chemistry and materials. With some crystals for lasers (communications, manufacturing, scientific applications) they are leading the world, and also strong on magnetism (motors, hard disks, etc). If a big breakthrough in superconductivity happens, it might well come from China.

    Not sure that the expanding regional base, notable as it is, is more important than US collaborations. The US still has the best universities. It has maintained its lead by taking in the world’s best researchers. Now those universities have taken in many chinese. As they are reaching more senior positions they are developing collaborations with China that are building a stronger scientific culture there (see my earlier comment on quality). Many are also returning to China after training in the US. I think the future will largely be determined by the balance of this process.

    On life sciences, it’s a bit easier to go into clinical trials in China. Possibly risk monitoring and ethical approvals are not yet strong enough. But they have become too bureaucratic / risk-averse in the US, and indeed this is one factor pushing pushing US academics to collaborate / move back.

    1. Thanks for your comments Joe. Your point about quality is well made and taken. However, the most important point in this report is the tendencies it uncovers. Yes, its still unclear about how the regional dynamic will pan out, but its emergence is of immense interest. Of course its always dubious to extrapolate into the future on the basis of a few statistics. But the secular tendencies both in China (the rise of a significant research capability) and the relative decline of the US looks set to change patterns for the future.

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