Like any young scientist, Prasad Hegde had to look hard for research positions around the world after a PhD. But unlike many Indian students in the US, Hegde looked eastward to do postdoctoral research. India was not an option as there were few positions available. He chose Taiwan over the US and EU, but it did not work out. Then he moved to China, which like India did not have a tradition of post-doctoral research, but was creating such jobs in large numbers.
Hegde spent two years in Wuhan, studying exotic states of matter created by collisions of atomic nuclei, before returning to India and a job at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru. Hegde's stint in China gave him insights into Chinese science and state of mind, the Chinese work culture and attitudes towards research. At least in his field of heavy ion physics, India had more scientists than China. "This kind of science was new to them," he says. But China was creating new fields of science and large research teams. The labs had plenty of money and were more flexible in hiring. "They like to do things in large scale and they do things fast," says Hedge, who is now an assistant professor at the Centre for High Energy Physics at IISc.
Over the last four decades, China has been developing the country at a frenetic pace. As it built its bridges and dams, its coal plants and rockets, the country also invested heavily in science and engineering research. Senior Chinese political leaders, most of whom had their basic education in science or engineering, trusted the power of science to transform the country's economy and society.
At least in quantity, China is about to overtake the US as the leading scientific nation in the world. It is also creating hitech industries of the future, and set to become an important player, if not the leader, in the twenty-first century knowledge economy. Chinese scientific institutions have had funding increases of 10 per cent or more every year in the last two and a half decades.
While China's GDP itself rose rapidly, its investments on R&D relative to its GDP also increased quickly. In 1991, China's GDP was $413 billion. It rose to $11 trillion last year. In 1991, China's investment in R&D was 0.7 per cent of its GDP. It now spends 2.09 per cent of its GDP on R&D. India has been increasing spending onscience since the year 2001, but not relative to its GDP: it spends slightly less than 0.9 per cent of its GDP on R&D. The Chinese scientific establishment is now so big that it can be compared only with the US. In 1991, China spent 5 per cent of what the US spent on R&D. By 2010, it was spending 44 per cent of what the US invested in R&D. By last year this figure has hit 75 per cent, according to data from the Industrial Research Institute and R&D magazine.
In scale, China is rapidly closing the gap in research with the US. China cont r ibutes 20 per cent of the world's spending on R&D, compared with 3.6 per cent for India. Chinese scientists expect the funding increases to continue for at least a decade and a half. By then, China may have caught up with the West in quantity and quality of its science at least in a few strategic areas.
China also combines investments in science with careful planning on how to command market share and power. "Chinese dominance in strategic technology has come by design and not by chance," says VS Ramamurthy, emeritus professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru. India has not had such a plan. In fact, Indian politicians have regarded science as a luxury to be indulged during periods of growth, rather than as an engine of growth itself. Few Indian leaders have had a background in science or engineering.
A Five-Decade story
China's science story starts in the 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping became chairman of the communist party. An engineer by training, Xiaoping decided to make scientific research the driving force of China's growth. Then followed a period of increased investments, buttressed by policies to entice Chinese-origin scientists and foreigners back to China. Wellfunded Chinese institutions are now a good destination for scientists of Chinese origin. Helping them are liberal policies to attract foreigners to do science in China. Hegde, for example, was paid slightly more than the Chinese scientists.
Unlike in India, it is easy for a foreigner to move and establish a lab in China. Ralf Jauch, a structural biologist from the Max Plank Institute in Germany, found this when he moved to the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health in 2013. Jauch now has academic freedom, not to speak of good funding and a generous supply of foreign students. But what surprised him was the attitude of the provincial government.
Despite his institute being part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the provincial government and the city of Guangzhou have invested in it. "I think this model of investment is unique to China," says Jauch. Provincial governments are interestedin science because they want to use science to grow the economy. "We realised quickly in China that cheap labour will not solve our problem," says Xiao-Dong, biologist and professor at Peking University. The Chinese government had carefully planned its investments in science. "China faces labour shortage," says Yu Xie, professor of sociology at Princeton University.
"It needs to transition from manufacturing to services, and then from services to hi-tech." Xie has researched science in China deeply. In a paper published two years ago in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he analysed the reasons behind the rapid rise of Chinese science. It began with Deng Xiaoping, who wanted to make science central to his country's growth. Soon after this takeover, the Chinese established the National Science Foundation, modelled after its namesake in the US. Then followed several programmes to revitalise Chinese science.
The first targets were the universities, beginning with a programme to upgrade 100 universities. This programme cost $2.2 billion in the first four years, and it was followed by another project to build elite universities. Peking University and Tsinghua University, for example, got $300 million each for modernisation in two years, followed by large and sustained funding for a long time. The results are now evident.
The good Chinese universities are among the best in the world (see Chinese universities...), while only a few Indian institutions get to the top 500. Chinese universities improved their standing by a mix of measures: high investments, schemes to attract talent from all over the world, and highly competitive entry requirements for students, which Deng Xiaoping himself oversaw initially. During the last decade, the Chinese government managed to persuade many prominent Chinese scientists to return to China. Some of them enjoyed such a high status in the US that the Americans themselves were taken by surprise.
These highly-publicised returns happened between 2007 and 2009. In 2008, China launched the Thousand Talents Programme specifically to attract Chinese origin scientists back to the country. Within four years, the programme had persuaded over 2,000 scientists to return to China.
Song Jian, former chairman of the State Science and Technology Commission in China, provided a startling piece of information during a recent television interview with the American physicist and corporate strategist Lawrence Kuhn. Of the roughly 3 million Chinese who went to study abroad since the 1980s, 1 million have returned to China. Similar schemes in India have attracted only a few scientists, and some of those wanting to return have been unable to get jobs in India. Unlike in India, scientists are paid well in China, and have a high place in society.
Xin-Nian Wang, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California in Berkeley, is one of those who spend part of their time in China through the Thousand Talents programme.
Wang has helped the Central China Normal University in Wuhan to build a large particle physics group very rapidly, making it the largest group in China and one of the largest in the world. "The distance between China and the US and EU in particle physics has narrowed in the last ten years," says Wang. China sees fundamental science as the centrepiece of its scientific culture.
Returning Chinese scientists are also helping build competitive industries. Ge Li, a brilliant organic chemist who did his PhD from Columbia University, returned to China in 2000 to set up WuXi PharmaTech as a research services provider. WuXi was in direct competition with Syngene International, set up as a subsidiary of Biocon in 1994. WuXi is now a $499 million (Rs 3,433 crore) company. Syngene, considered a very successful Indian company, had revenues of `1,113 crore last year. There were many reasons why WuXi grew faster. Better infrastructure and the reputation of Li were two very important ones, but returning Chinese scientists also contributed significantly. "Unlike Indians," says former Syngene CEO Goutam Das, "the Chinese have no problems going back leaving their family in the US."
The Chinese have had no compunctions in seeking foreign help to boost science. Geoffrey Oldham, former director of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, had been working with China for five decades to help formulate its science policies. Even in the 1960s, Oldham was surprised to find the pace of change after each visit. Attitudes were then guarded.
Chinese leaders later started opening up and asking for suggestions to improve their science and technology sector. All along, they were clear about the role of science in China's future. Recently, the leaders seemed concerned about two vital aspects of science and technology in China, according to Oldham. One was the lack of ability to innovate.
"They knew that all the improvements were due to foreign technology and capital," says Oldham. The second concern was about China's education system, which they felt was based too much on role learning. Oldham was surprised at continuing their keenness for foreign collaboration. The leaders knew that they needed foreign help in key areas, and still did not hesitate to ask for help.
The Chinese are still learning to innovate, and to bridge the gap between scientific research and the market. "China has had a history of conflict for a long time," says Bo-Quiang Ma, physicist and professor at Peking University. "The last 40 years have been peaceful, letting us work." Imagine what another 40 peaceful years can do. - economictimes.indiatimes
22 Apr 2016
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