China on right path to becoming a global power in scientific research

For the nation to get the full dividend of increased investment in science, it needs to address concerns about a positive environment for creative freedom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2016, 10:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2016, 10:07pm

The swelling ranks of the new rich may be testament to China’s rise, but a new emerging millionaire class is playing an increasing and key role in propelling the country towards its goal of a moderately prosperous society and the dream of future greatness. They are scientists. Just five years ago, the average mainland scientist earned less than US$40,000 a year, or about half of what they would have earned in the United States, according to the international scientific journal Nature. Thanks to enormous spending on research and development – 1.4 trillion yuan (HK$1.7 trillion) last year according to the government – higher salaries and other benefits are closing the gap, and reversing the brain drain.

A study by the Science and Technology Talent Centre under the Ministry of Science and Technology puts the average salary for a professor returning from overseas to a major university at about 800,000 yuan, or more than US$120,000. Competition for talent also includes generous research grants.

The result is a new breed of millionaires, still small but growing in number, who are at the forefront of China’s rising global profile in groundbreaking research and development. The evidence is to be found in the currency of scientific recognition: publication of research in top journals such as Nature and Science, and peer citations and reviews. According to the Nature Index 2016 released last week, China is now the world’s No 2 contributor to high-quality research papers, right behind the US. Of the top 10 countries on the list, only China recorded double-digit growth from 2012 to 2015, with some universities growing their contributions up to 25 per cent a year.

The rapid expansion, however, has not come without stresses and strains that must be addressed. They include an income gap, with most researchers without overseas experience still struggling on modest salaries and their higher-paid colleagues keeping a low profile to avoid antagonising them. Higher salaries and other perks are a step in the right direction, but obstacles remain to luring top researchers home, such as perceptions of pollution, food safety, government bureaucracy and interference in their work. For China to get the full dividend of increased investment in science, it needs to address the concerns of scientists and academics about a positive environment for creative freedom. If China really wants to attract and retain top-notch talent, it must do much more in this respect. That said, for now at least, it is spending more money on science and research rather than on old-economy industrial plants.