As in so many other things, China's seeking to play a leading role in 21st century science. And it's using a familiar weapon: money.
Last week, Chinese physicists announced that they’d completed the initial design for a massive high-energy particle collider, which could become operational around 2025. The project -- which may cost $3 billion and stretch for more than 60 miles -- is just the latest in a string of Chinese “big science” initiatives designed to boost national prestige and produce lucrative spinoff technologies. At a time when money for basic research is increasingly difficult to obtain in the U.S. and Europe, China sees an opportunity to seize the global scientific vanguard.
The regime isn't wrong to try, and the cause of human knowledge will benefit from any breakthroughs that result. But if China's truly going to reap a return on its eye-popping investments, the government needs to do something harder than build a giant particle smasher: It needs to rethink its central role in Chinese research.
State sponsorship of science has its pluses, of course, including speedy decisionmaking on complex, expensive projects. But the costs often outweigh the benefits. Under the regime's heavy hand, the Chinese scientific establishment has long suffered from cronyism,corruption, and pervasive fraud. These blemishes damage the country’s research reputation. More importantly, they help drive anongoing brain drain that no amount of government largesse has been able to stem.
While the relationship between science and the state is politicized and complex in every country (including the U.S.), China’s top-down system exacerbates the worst problems. With scientists expected to serve the state, those who show their loyalty to the regime have typically progressed as fast if not faster than those who make new discoveries. This less-than-meritocratic culture has become ingrained in the influential Chinese Academy of Sciences -- a 60,000-employeebureaucratic behemoth that controls 104 of China’s top research institutions and most of its non-military research spending.
This is one of the more informed articles about China which I have seen. Whether or not one invests in China, we need to pay attention to this country as it grows in importance.Back to top