Bangalore: As China readies for the summer Olympics next month, basking in global attention both as host and participant, its performance in the “Olympics of science and technology” is already so impressive it could soon overtake the US, says a team of researchers in Thursday’s China special issue of the magazine Nature.
Tracing the history of science superpowers from 1735 till date, the researchers say China’s rise would not only mark the end of “America’s era as the scientific hegemon”, but could also bring to an end the era of “scientific hegemons”.
“It seems unlikely that we will witness another unrivalled scientific behemoth in the mould of France, Germany, Britain and the United States,” say J. Rogers Hollingsworth and Ellen Jane Hollingsworth from the University of Wisconsin, US, and Karl H. Muller, Institute of Social Science Documentation, Vienna, Austria.
Scientific activity, investment and policy initiatives seem to be in harmony in China, where the number of published scientific papers has doubled in the past five years to 80,000, according to a survey by the newsletter ScienceWatch. China’s share of the world’s published scientific articles soared from 0.2% in 1980 to 7.4% in 2006, when it overtook Japan for the first time. Although quality yet doesn’t match the quantity, at 0.73, it is inching towards the world average of 1 in citation impact score, a measure of publication quality.
This has come in tandem with a rise in research and development spending, which has grown at a 20% pace since 1999, and amounted to almost $90 billion (Rs3.8 trillion) in 2006. “But this does not guarantee a place as an innovation leader,” says Lan Xue, director of the China Institute for Science and Technology, Tsinghua University, Beijing.
For a developing country, she argues, the application of knowledge in productive activity and related social transformation are more important than the production of the knowledge itself.
“China and India pride themselves on publishing in journals listed in the Scientific Citation Index or Social Science Citation Index,” but local researchers cannot access such expensive English-language publications, Xue said in her paper The Prizes and Pitfalls of Progress.
“I think China and India are spending a lot in doing original research, but not enough in absorbing S&T (science and technology) knowledge generated elsewhere and making it available to local people,” Xue said in an email.
Publication is no doubt the holy grail of S&T research, but if aided by an enabling environment, it can lead to innovation and star products in the market. China seems to be scoring well in that as well. It recently passed a law stating that it was “acceptable for scientists to fail”, an effort to reduce the loss of face associated with failed experiments, say researchers.
“This is why China is marching ahead. They recognize the problem and immediately try to fix it; we recognize the problem and debate it for the next three decades,” says Rudra Pratap, professor of mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Science and chairman of Cranes Software International Ltd.
He thinks the fear of failure in S&T defines the “risk-averse Indian middle-class obsession with security and a consequential creation of a comfort zone”. The Indian system, he says, “not only encourages ‘good boys’ who keep producing inconsequential work in their comfort zones but sneers publicly at those who try to be different.” But the younger generation has no patience for such a “system,” so things will improve, says Pratap.