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U.S. Lags as China Goes on Science Overdrive

Friday, August 12th, 2011

The China of today as an economic powerhouse is rapidly achieving technology self-sufficiency. Now China is rewriting its scientific history as well. Said to once have been the cradle of human civilization and the land that gave the world many firsts, including gunpowder, paper, the compass and printing, China is today straddling the frontiers of New Science.

In fact, China’s rather bridled approach to development has led to a steady, paced growth on the scientific horizon, making path-breaking research a part of its everyday scientific routine. In fact, surveys today show that its scientific prowess is fast surpassing nations such as the United States.

However, China is not set to overtake America in the next half-century or so. In fact, it is already on par with the U.S. today in terms of scientific research presentations, and in the next one or two years, it is likely to overtake the U.S. on most scientific milestones.

These predictions are not mere flights of fantasy, but are actually substantiated findings from leading and reputed organizations such as The Royal Society of the U.K., the National Science Academy.

Parameters that define the growth of quality science are usually the amount of research that is published and made accessible to the scientific community at large for peer review.

The Royal Society’s study, termed ‘Study, Knowledge, Networks and Nations’ reveals the emergence of China in juxtaposition to conventional predominance by the U.S., Europe as well as Japan.

The study is based on the Elsevier published work which is found listed by Scopu Services. That is, the indicators of research and the scientific status of a country are based on the number of research papers published by Elsevier and found listed on Scopu Services.

Some Statistics on Research Papers Published

In the base year of 1996, for comparative growth study, the U.S. had published 292,513 papers. In comparison, the Chinese Scientific community published 25,474 papers. However, by 2008, against the U.S.’s 316,317 papers, China had published an astounding 178,318 research papers, a good seven times more than its numbers from only twelve years previous.

Considering the steady pace at which papers were published around the base years, analysts proposed that by 2020, Chinese scientific progress would surpass even America’s science research. In the meantime, the Chinese science juggernaut had sidelined the U.K. as the second leading country to submit research papers. Today analysts are using a simple but effective linear interpretation of Elsevier’s publishing data to establish that China’s overtaking of America in this measurement will happen as early as 2013.

Report on Chinese Research

Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, an eminent research expert, chaired the Royal Society team report cited. He substantiates the report findings and interprets the phenomenal growth over the past few years, attributing this great burst of scientific activity to the huge amount of investment as well as impetus given to research and development by the Chinese government in the past two decades.

Starting with 1996 as the base year, the investment into research and development has grown by 20 percent per year. Considering this against the recession and economic meltdown in the past few years, it is clear that China has not let its investments into key scientific research become sidelined. In fact the overall Chinese budgetary allowance for research has now reached over US$100 billion.

Investing in Research Infrastructure and Scientific Talent Pays Dividends

Augmenting this focus on laboratory research has been the nourishing of talent and intellectual thought in engineering and scientific colleges and universities, particularly from 2006. The infrastructure to fire scientific temper with added incentives such as scholarships, professional and career benefits to participate and present research papers has definitely helped in the quantum increase in core activities happening at premier Chinese universities and research labs.

The number of graduates majoring in core science and engineering subjects is close to 1.5 million in aggregate from 2006 onwards. The focus on every engineering and scientific branch, from food production/processing industry to construction, is rapidly being adopted for scientific study. Traditional sciences that form the fundamental core of Chinese scientific strucutre are also being further delved into, and today there are multitudinous research papers being presented about the benefits of indigenous Chinese ingredients such as green tea to green batteries for captive power generation.

A very important aspect of Chinese progress has been the issue of patenting. China today has the highest number of patents being filed each year thanks to its unique approach; rewarding patent filing with monetary awards as well as career opportunities, which is encouraging greater patent filing by premier research organizations and in lesser numbers of individuals.

Quality is Always in Question

In the first quarter of 2011, China patent filing numbers surpassed even U.S. patents. However, experts as well as patent-researchers the world over are raising questions on the overall quality of these Chinese patents that are being filed. Similar concerns are being raised about the quality of research that China is placing before the global scientific community.

Yet given the historical precedent and the geo-political developments following the fall of Communism in Russia and the disintegration of Russian scientific structure, China has obviously learned some valuable lessons. The need to compete on the world stage and bolster its global status is fast motivating China to reach for the untread paths of science and development.

With its future growth into a superpower and its perceived need to retain its political ideology-based sovereignty, China has motivated a phased development that is qualitatively different from development in the past era of the Communist regime.

Still, many questions on the unprecedented rise in patents and research papers there are today being regarded by the world scientific analysis community as game of numbers that are meant to increase the prestige of the country on the world scientific platform.

However, a highly regarded indicator to prove the worth of research is the number of times other scientists or other types of work will cite or quote these research results as reference in the international community. U.K. scientific research is the second-most cited scientific work used as quality reference material, for example. It remains to be seen how the Chinese scientific literature will measure up in terms of this reliable qualitative indicator.

Quality to Catch Up by 2020

Dr. Cong Cao, the Associated Professor at the Nottingham University School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, supports various survey results asking for improvement required in Chinese scientific research papers. The quantity and quality of research papers are a mismatch. Dr. Cao, who is also a leading sociologist from Shanghai, is able to review the entire process more objectively, and he reiterates that there are millions of graduates from the premier science and engineering organizations who 'easily' get permission to publish their research. However, for these papers to reach the standard and quality of international research community will require a greater catch-up preiod far exceeding the 2013 time lines that mere quantitative research paper presentations will assume.

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