Editorial: China’s rise in science

Published in The Hindu on March 26, 2010

President Barack Obama has earmarked $66 billion for non-defence research and development, which includes substantial funding for basic-science research, in his budget proposal for the fiscal year 2011. This six per cent increase over the 2010 budget allocation reflects the United States’ anxiety to stay on top; China is fast catching up with it. The socialist country’s efforts over three decades to improve its competitiveness in science and technology have started showing results. While Mr. Obama has given the thumbs down to NASA’s plan of sending humans to moon, China’s moon mission is very much on track. So is its mission to send unmanned probes to collect moon soil before 2020. Writing in the New Scientist, Jonathan Adam, author of the 2009 Thomson Reuter’s Global Research Report on China, says: “If it continues in the current trajectory, China will overtake the U.S. before 2020.” The credit must go to China’s two-pronged approach: capacity building and liberal funding. Since 2000, it has been the world’s second largest producer of scientific knowledge. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report of 2007, China’s gross spending on R&D grew at 18 per cent a year during 1995-2006. Its R&D budget for 2009 is $25.7 billion, a 26 per cent increase over 2008. This places it just behind the U.S. and Japan in terms of R&D spending.

A proxy way to assess a country’s research strength is to look at the number of papers published by its nationals in international journals. For China, this number has risen from 20,000 in 1998 to 112,000 in 2008, according to the 2009 Thomson Reuter report. If joint authorship with researchers from scientifically developed countries is one way to assess quality of research, it was nine per cent with the U.S. collaborators alone. Another indicator of high-quality research done in China comes from the latest ranking by the Nature Group of Publications (NGP). The ranking of countries in the Asia-Pacific region based on the number of papers published in its journals during the past year (after correcting for the number of authors from each country) places China second, after Japan.While the biological sciences constitute a major thrust area, other areas such as material sciences, nanotechnology, space, atomic energy, computer science, and information technology are getting increasing attention. Nobody who follows non-defence R&D seriously is likely to disagree with New Scientist‘s assessment that “China’s emergence as a scientific superpower can no longer be denied.”