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State of science rises, but equation may have flaws

LONDON--Deliang Chen started his scientific career in China in the early 1980s, part of the first generation to follow the vicious anti-intellectual years of the Cultural Revolution.

“There was a big desire to help those with degrees,” says Chen of those days. “You could become a researcher with a master's degree. There were no Ph.D.s.”

China has changed since then, of course. The country has increased its spending on science at a blistering rate and now publishes the second most scientific papers in the world after the United States. Read the headlines and you might think that China is about to overtake the West.

But China's scientific progress is no sure thing. Interviews with Chinese scientists working in the West together with data from the OECD and some of the world's leading science academies suggest restrictive political and cultural attitudes continue to stifle science there. International collaboration is harder from China, scientists say, while many still prefer to be educated in and live in the West.

That's certainly Chen's experience. After winning a scholarship to study in Germany in the late 1980s he returned to China for a few years but then got a job offer from Sweden, where he is now a professor in the Earth Sciences department of Gothenburg University. He still has strong links with China's scientific community, and worked as Science Director at the Beijing Climate Center for six years until 2008. From a purely scientific point of view, he says, it's an exciting time to work in China, particularly because funding is generous.

But he thinks predictions that China will surpass the United States in science in the next 20 years are way too optimistic. Everything from a lack of affordable good schools to concerns about poor air and food quality still keep many scientists away. More importantly, China's attitude to free thinking and obsequience to authority hurt its scientific progress.

“Freedom of expression is very sensitive and very crucial,” he said. “I think it is a real issue. The scientific culture in China is quite different from Europe and the U.S. There is a much higher respect for authority, and in science this is not good.”

Come on Home

A Royal Society report on the global science landscape published in 2011 found 70 percent of the 1.06 million Chinese who studied abroad between 1978 and 2006 did not return. Scientists say that figure has fallen but estimate around half of all who study abroad still stay away.

Beijing is trying to change that. China's government-sponsored Thousand Talents Program, set up in 2008, has convinced some 600 overseas Chinese and foreign academics to return to China with promises of what Premier Wen Jiabao has described as “talent-favorable policies in households, medical care and the education of children.”

That's a good start, but the biggest challenge of all these programs is attracting people who are willing to move back to China permanently, Chen said from Sweden. “It's not only about the salary, which is the focus of many of these programmes. I think it's a little bit naive to think in that way.”

The OECD estimates China spends about US$154 billion a year on research and development, up from just US$30 billion a decade ago with an accelerating trend in recent years. That amount is still only half the EU spend of US$300 billion and is dwarfed by US$400 billion for the United States.

The investment is starting to pay off. According to Britain's national science academy The Royal Society, China has overtaken the UK as the second leading producer of published scientific research and could surpass the United States as early as next year.

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