China’s race to the top in Science by Samuel Liew

As China’s economy is showing signs of regression, President Xi Jinping has called for massive development of the scientific field in the region, “Space exploration is part of the dream to make China stronger.” Knowledge in Science and Technology provides a driving force for sustainable developments in China, responsible for economic reforms and social transformation. Hence, a literate scientific community holds the responsibility to continually put China on stage with other dominant players in Science.

It seems almost decades ago that scientists dreamt of pursuing academia in Science outside of China, where there were more opportunities and funding into research. Nowadays, Chinese scientists can make a global impact from within China itself. This is mostly due to initiatives such as 2008’s Thousand Talents Plan that aimed to lure talented scientists back to China, offering useful resources and full-time positions at prestigious universities. Annual expenditure on Science and Technology in China increased by 30-times as compared to two decades ago, peaking at a whopping $234billion in 2016.

Due to this increase in funding, scientists were encouraged to produce breakthroughs. In 2018, Chinese scientists were successful in cloning macaque monkeys. However, the study lacked viability, as only two live births were successful out of 79 attempts and major publications such as Nature refused to publish the paper due to ethical concerns. Regardless, this achievement in cloning our close evolutionary relative placed China at the forefront of stem cell research. Another researcher, Zuo Wei utilised stem cells to repair lungs damaged due to emphysema. Air pollution is still a major environmental issue in China and results from this research could be useful in helping those deeply affected by it.

Not only has China gained scientific prowess in Biology, but it also aims to be at the forefront of space research. On January 3rd this year, China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft successfully landed on the far (dark) side of the moon, a first for any country, utilising a pre-positioned relay satellite and a robotic lander vehicle. There are plans to follow up on this success with additional probes being sent to the Moon and an exploration of Mars next year. These space missions are aimed to propel China ahead of the US and Russia in the next decade, possibly to increase its military power, as space assets such as GPS and precision-guided missiles are essential in the success of missions.

In 2016, China built the world’s largest radio telescope, Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), which is twice the size of the next largest telescope in Puerto Rico. The radio telescope can sense very faint radio wave frequencies from space in the hopes to discover new gas clouds, galaxies, and quasars. Since the last director, Nan Rendong, passed away in September 2017, there has been difficulty in attracting a new director and other astronomers to oversee this high-profile project in the remote village where the telescope is located. The problems were compounded when the government started to build tourist amenities in a nearby town. Even though mobile phones are prohibited on site, radio frequency interference (RFI) from the nearby town could affect research. Therefore, the fine balance between economic development or valuable scientific research needs to be carefully considered for the success of the infrastructure built.

The number of scientific publications in China has outnumbered that of US in 2016, partly due to increasing incentives within China, which is needed to maintain enthusiasm amongst researchers. However, there is the argument that quantity does not equate quality, as there were allegations that scientists fabricate and plagiarise results to pass their annual performance evaluations. Another worry is that scientists may not abide by ethical guidelines, such as the creation of gene-edited embryos that is resistant to HIV infection by Dr He Jiankui that were then implanted into volunteers. This misconduct is due to the lack of quality control and lax regulatory laws. The Chinese government has thus established an official agency to oversee scientific integrity to raise standards.

The scientific boom in China is reminiscent of that of the West in the 20th century. Has China been catching up instead of forging ahead? For China to forge ahead, they need to constantly and critically evaluate their data and be willing to share information with other countries. There also needs to be a focus of practical translational applications in healthcare or for the greater good when undertaking research, instead of focusing on incentives provided by the government. Can Chinese scientists break free of the embedded authoritarian culture, where they have to answer to higher powers that want results, no matter the cost? Only time will tell. Regardless, all of these achievements boast China as a force to be reckoned with in Science and everyone should keep an eye on the latest innovations that are to come.


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