China science

Only with transparency will China’s huge investment in science truly pay off

Transparency will ensure open debate of ideas, guaranteeing funds are directed to work that benefits not just Chinese, but all humanity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 1:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 1:00am

China’s science and technology ambitions are immense. With the government dedicated to making its investment comprise 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2020, some of the world’s biggest experiments are either under way or proposed. Like the largest radio telescope which began receiving signals this week, to missions to outer space and the ocean depths to medical breakthroughs and a proposal for a massive supercollider, no research would seem too daunting. But these are symbolic, headline-grabbing projects with equally impressive budgets and they are more often than not launched without public discussion or sufficient debate. If the nation is to truly become a scientific powerhouse, authorities have to also be mindful of transparency, ethics, collaboration and ensuring spending gets to less glamorous, although just as worthy, endeavours.

The government’s catchword where research and development are concerned is innovation. That is essential if aims for the economy to move beyond manufacturing to being knowledge-based are to be attained. But also driving the effort is a belief that there is a need to catch up on decades of lost time and that nothing should be allowed to get in the way. From barely featuring in the global science rankings in the 1970s, China is now surpassed only by the US when it comes to spending and research papers.

China’s giant radio telescope tunes in to the universe

In keeping with such a push, the reach for space has no rival. In just 13 years, 10 Chinese have gone into orbit, the first probe to the moon in 40 years landed, two space stations have been launched and sights are firmly set on Mars. The telescope in a natural crater in southern Guizhou (貴州) province is financially modest by comparison, being built for US$180 million, but in size it is world-beating; at 500 metres in diameter, it outstrips the next largest, in Puerto Rico, by 200 metres. It is about more than one-upmanship, though, as bigger is better with radio telescopes when it comes to searching for gravitational waves, listening for signs of extraterrestrial life and detecting radio emissions from stars and galaxies.

A shift to abstract science from a practical approach with more immediate returns shows the desire for innovation and creativity. But as welcome as the investment in science and technology is, symbolism and prestige cannot be allowed to get in the way of enabling a wide range of research. Transparency will ensure open debate of ideas, guaranteeing funds are directed to work that benefits not just Chinese, but all humanity.