China can win tech future with reform, innovation

By Xiao Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/12 20:38:40

Nation can win the future with reform, innovation

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

While Chinese technology brands have over the years made their way into both domestic and international markets, weakening consumers' outright fondness for Western brand names, especially US ones, it's fair to say China's technological rise has yet to be significant enough to make it a science superpower, a crown believed to be still worn by the US.

With accelerated spending in science and technology translating into numbers that speak for China's rising prominence as a birthplace for scientific knowledge, now is the time for the world's second-largest economy to pursue institutional reforms that will redesign its science and innovation landscape.

If handled in a timely and efficient manner, China might transform itself into a global science and technology trendsetter, just as the US' dominant position is at risk of being eroded as a consequence of the Donald Trump administration's xenophobic approach to trade.

China's rise in the scientific world is evident. The country has for the first time exceeded the US as measured by scientific publication numbers, according to a report released in January by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). The number of studies China published in 2016 was more than 426,000, or 18.6 percent of the total documented in the Scopus database chosen by the NSF to gauge science and technology publication activity. The US, by comparison, published nearly 409,000 papers.

In another sign that China is climbing the scientific ladder, the Future Science Prize, a nongovernmental science award known as China's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, on Saturday announced its 2018 laureates in life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics and computer science. Each of the three categories carried a cash award of $1 million and seven Chinese scientists - including famous agronomist Yuan Longping - won the Future Science Prize, which is now in its third year.

The awards, which seek to emulate the Nobel Prize - and not purely in terms of cash awards and prize categories - signals the country's quest for scientific achievement.

But neither the top spot in the global scientific publication rankings nor the country's Nobel-like awards, will be enough. While China's techno-utilitarian approach to research and development has proved hugely efficient in equipping the economy with emerging technologies, the country's capabilities when it comes to cutting-edge scientific discoveries and technologies have yet to be as convincing as the US.

What's most needed in China's pursuit of scientific and technological breakthroughs are fundamental reforms of the country's science and innovation system.

In fairness, China is already pushing for more fundamental changes in these areas. Among the most noteworthy efforts was an announcement in July by the State Council, China's cabinet, that the country will ease rules on the use of research funds and give researchers more autonomy over lab spending to allow for the improved productivity and vitality of their work. 

It could be said that the country is moving in the right direction, but more robust measures are required to make headway with the most difficult part of scientific achievement - breakthroughs in fields that need unparalleled foresight and innovative originality.

Other than more autonomy over how research funds are used, it also matters if more younger, lower-ranked researchers are eligible for the funds. It is true that China's booming internet sector and thriving start-up community have bolstered research and development on the private side. But it's yet to be the case that top scientific discoveries come from the country's business sector. It is business models and the country's sizable markets, rather than unprecedented findings, that contribute to the economy's marked rise amid rising internet waves.

More fundamentally, the country ought to rework its education system to genuinely realize individuals' creativity and innovation potential. Specifically, that could mean a more flexible system to break down barriers among disciplines at tertiary institutions. It's not unusual in China that students have no idea of the majors that match their true motivation and interests. Quite often, their courses are chosen by their families to maximize their employment potential. Remodeling Chinese universities and colleges with an interdisciplinary mindset and strengthening the foundation subjects within undergraduate education would set the stage for a wider, higher-quality pool of scientific and technological talent.

Such efforts exemplifying institutional reforms of China's innovation system will over time produce a qualitative change. Meanwhile, the US' current trade and immigration policies, smacking of the increasing emergence of xenophobia, would inevitably erode the US' position as a global powerhouse of talent and reduce its scientific capability in the long run.

Ratcheted-up trade tensions the US has with countries including China might end up giving China a leg up in its seeking science supremacy, if the latecomer's institutional push is strong enough to move it toward a Chinese innovation-dominated future.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

Newspaper headline: Nation can win the future with reform, innovation

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