This article is from the In-Depth Report State of the World’s Science
See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 4

China’s Rise in Science May Taper Off [Preview]

World-class status for research excellence comes with a new set of challenges
Graphic by Arno Ghelfi; SOURCE: “The Global Competitiveness Report 2011–2012,” edited by Klaus Schwab. World Economic Forum, 2011


In Brief

  • China's economy has been growing quickly, and so has its research efforts. In a short time, it has become a world leader—a startling achievement.
  • The Chinese Academy of Sciences is on a par with some of the best scientific research institutions.
  • This rapid rise in research prowess has been concentrated largely at the top, however. Currently a yawning gulf exists between the elite institutions and most of the others.
  • China's universities will have to overcome a host of problems, such as inconsistent standards and academic culture, to continue improving.

For two decades now China has been Asia's juggernaut. It builds whole cities from scratch, leads the world in energy construction and has grown its economy by nearly 10 percent a year. Breakneck growth has not been confined to the economy—China has also become a scientific research world power in a remarkably short time.

The mainland's universities have undergone a dramatic expansion. In 1978 China had only 860,000 students in higher education—a mere 1.6 percent of school-age adults. That figure ballooned to more than 23 million students, or about 27 percent, by 2011. This growth has made the nation's academic system number one in the world in terms of student enrollments. China now has more than 100 research universities in all fields, many of them with an emphasis on science and engineering. Graduate student enrollments have also escalated from 280,000 in 2000 to 1.6 million in 2011.

China's leaders recognize that scientific research and higher education are essential to attaining global leadership. Despite its impressive achievements, however, the path to academic excellence and world-class status is by no means assured. For 40 years China has tried to rapidly expand its overall research and education system while instilling excellence in a handful of centers. So far China has juggled these two goals by starving the bottom to feed the top. A yawning gulf exists between elite institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University and institutions catering to mass enrollments. The top few percent of Chinese graduates have world-class educations, but many who earn degrees are not well trained and cannot find jobs.

As much as China has accomplished, making significant improvements is going to be tough. The nation's leaders will find over the next decade that simply pumping more resources into the elite research universities will not achieve true world-class status for the academic system. They are also going to have to preside over significant changes in academic culture, administration and leadership. Further progress will involve changes in how universities function and in how the culture of academe is perceived in China.

Engines of Excellence

Before the country opened up in the late 1970s, China's science and technology system employed a Soviet model: specialized institutions conducted research, and narrowly focused universities delivered education and training. This model failed because research was separate from teaching, interdisciplinary work was impossible, resources were scarce, and tight political controls and ideology were paramount. The Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 closed all of higher education for a decade and destroyed much of what had been built previously. In the 1990s China expanded and restructured higher education to meet its economic ambitions.

The government soon realized, however, that the country performed poorly in knowledge creation and innovation according to various global competitiveness reports and rankings. In 1995 China started Project 211 to develop 100 universities and several key scientific disciplines by the early 21st century. Three years later it launched Project 985, which has come to focus on 39 key research universities of excellence. The national and local governments and a few universities invested about $15 billion in additional funding to these select institutions.

These efforts have provided significant resources for a small number of Chinese universities and enhanced capacity for scientific and technological research and innovation. With special-funding support from a few national projects, the universities have managed to attract elite researchers and academics from abroad, mainly from the Chinese diaspora, to work in China. Leading research universities' budgets are coming close to the level of their peers in other parts of the world. In terms of research papers, output has increased to a level close to that of American universities. In 2008 the Project 985 universities produced 6,073 patents (both domestic and international), compared with only 346 in 1999. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the number of Chinese patents registered in the U.S. increased from 41 in 1992 to 1,874 in 2008.

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