Dr Glen Noble, Deputy Director of UK Research and Innovation China
Most people know that the USA has 50 states, but how many know that China has 33? And could you describe both Shanxi and Shaanxi?
It’s hard to avoid China in the news right now. Thanks to the looming threat of a global trade war, people are probably more aware of its importance to the world economy than ever before. Yet while the recent story about ZTE’s reliance on American-made computer chips might give the impression that China is still struggling, the reality for many areas of science is vastly different.
Bolstered by an impressive 2.1% of GDP investment in national R&D, China is rapidly becoming recognised as a world leader in academic research, especially in fields such as chemistry, materials and engineering. This is no accident. It is the result of a careful and long term strategy of upgrading and expansion of the nation’s scientific capabilities and workforce. As China’s investment in research continues to expand, it is becoming strategically essential for other governments, institutions and individuals to make decisions about where and how to engage, and to be able to do so effectively, with China.
International collaboration is always challenging and requires us to cross many borders, geographic, linguistic and cultural. Even more so for China, a country changing so fast that even living here it can be hard to keep up, and a country so large that understanding where and how to engage requires an extensive level of background knowledge. This is made more so by the general lack of baseline knowledge of China, such as the differences between similar sounding provinces. Mobility, and the cultural literacy and network resources that it enables, are key to establishing successful partnerships.
Individually Chinese have long recognised the value of international mobility. Last year more than 450,000 young Chinese studied abroad, a number which continues to climb. Similarly, while the start of the last century saw a major Chinese diaspora, more recently many Chinese scientists have gone abroad seeking higher quality research environments such as the UK or the USA.
Therefore, China’s strategic position on international mobility is quite different from many other countries. As its extensive national investments in science infrastructure mature, it has developed a strategic focus on ‘return mobility’ exemplified through the 1000 Talent Plan which offers significant funds for senior Chinese academics to return to China, bringing their international experience, networks and skills with them. Many other developing economies have suffered through prolonged ‘brain-drains’ over the years and China’s investment in both scientific infrastructure and 1000 Talents plan demonstrates the steps required to reverse that process.
There are several lessons to draw from the experiences of China, and what it might mean for building global research networks and collaboration. Not least that in research, as in all other aspects of politics and economics, we are increasingly living in a multipolar environment and previous models of international collaboration are not necessarily going to hold true for the coming century. Europe and the USA will not necessarily be able to rely on their ability to attract and hold on to international science talent and their research base will need to become more mobile to compensate.
Importantly though we also need to recognise that multipolarity is not necessarily going to lead to uniformity, and that understanding potential partners is going to take investments of time and resources. We frequently see research groups struggling to engage China because they have not made sufficient investment in understanding the context. Even basic questions such as where to visit in order to meet potential partners (is it Shanxi or Shaanxi?) can cause problems. Let alone the complexities over how to manage long term research agendas and the institutional contexts in which your collaborators operate. This point stands for many other countries and collaborations. You cannot underestimate the importance of building relationships and rapport, especially where that cultural distance is much greater than within the EU or with the USA.
Despite the difficulties, international collaboration in science is increasingly the norm. In a multipolar world the smartest people in your field are going to be located all over the globe and in order to collaborate with them you are going to need to not just meet them, but to spend time learning how to work with them. International mobility provides the networks and the collaborative skills and cultural literacy that are increasingly essential to cutting edge science. More importantly it reminds us that science is not a mercantile economy — ideas shared are not diminished, they create more ideas and more productive research.
Dr Glen Noble is Deputy Director of UK Research and Innovation China, and previously worked at the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). He is originally from the UK, and relocated to China in 2015.