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How China could dominate science (economist.com)
46 points by known 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

Not could, is. With the exception of the US, China is already ahead of all other countries. A friend who's one of the top quantum physicists in the world recently returned from a stint in China. He told me that the University lab he was at had more equipment and resources than exist in the entire country of Australia. Within 10-25 years it will become compulsory for western scientists to learn Chinese. They simply value science far more so than we do in the western countries.

The best Chinese researchers are willing to put up with multi-year queues to get a green card. I don't see that happening the other way round.

No one is breaking down walls to get into China. The opposite is happening.



This is not my experience working with Chinese scientists in chemistry in my lab. None of the ones I work with want to go back to China and they are very critical of the validity of any science done there.

Do you have more specifics on what the critics were ? I have the intuition that you can't really do good science in a totalitarian regime (because superior pressure is too high, and totalitarian regimes are often associated with "fear to fail" state of mind), but it's just a belief.

They think a lot of the science is just made up and not rigorously tested at all. They also dislike the way promotion and advancement is done there, not based on the scientist's merit but based on who you know, nepotism, corruption, etc.

I don't doubt it but don't you think it would be easy to find American scientists that feel the same way? Also I'll just point out that your sample is biased to people who have chosen to leave. Of course they made the right decision!

It's not that they value science more than we do but it's the only way to rule the world and it looks like China is aiming for that. What would the U.S be without science/technology? This is a never ending game.

How is that different form what US has been doing for last few decades? Seems like being ahead in science is like license needed to rule the world. In current time, everyone(no matter at what level in authority hierarchy) wants to rule over others. This kind of selfish mentality is sure to bring end to what we have achieved so far.

That is because the leading scientist of the lab can get lots of funding, and bc of the unique funding mechanism in China he must spend those money as fast as he can. When I was a student in China many years ago, I saw lots of high end Unix workstations in physics lab and nobody knows how to use them. Professor told me they had to spend the money...

> This gives Chinese scientists an incentive to observe international rules

Maybe. The US is currently discussing going the opposite direction (with export restrictions, conference restrictions and the like) so China may resist any efforts go to "international standards".

Which I do consider short-sighted for both countries.

Meanwhile, India seems to be going in the opposite direction - https://indianexpress.com/article/india/thirty-seven-academi...

I've been quite dismayed by this but I don't think overall it's yet as serious as it sounds.

The IITs are quite solid and several are among the pool of top institutions in the world. There are many really good engineers and scientists in the country.

More interestingly, the upper bureaucracy (i.e. non-political appointees) of science and engineering oriented ministries (e.g. MNRE) tend to be actual scientists.

There's a pseudoscientific froth in India, Turkey, USA, Iran, and other religious countries, but they still get power plants and satellites built. The froth gets attention because 1> it's shocking and 2> it appeals to the short-term aims of various politicians and their bases.

So when India can't get a fighter plane built I ascribe it to garden variety corruption, not disdain for science.

That a naive thinking.You didn't try to reason the motivation behind the claims of accused scientists in the article. There have been numerous discoveries of ancient artifacts proving again and again the advancement of our ancestors in the field of science and technology. Why is it wrong to study ancient texts to try to understand their techniques? Why are such professionals are being targeted? Do you atleast believe in ancient medical science of Ayurveda, whose methods are increasingly being accepted in modern medical institutions in Europe and USA? You wouldn't dare point finger at them but you would do it, without thinking twice, when someone from your country try do it.

Wikipedia entry on ayurveda:

Although laboratory experiments suggest it is possible that some substances used in Ayurveda might be developed into effective treatments, there is no scientific evidence that any are effective as currently practiced.[11] Ayurveda medicine is considered pseudoscientific.[12] Other researchers consider it a protoscience, or trans-science system instead.[13][14] In a 2008 study, close to 21% of Ayurveda U.S. and Indian-manufactured patent medicines sold through the Internet were found to contain toxic levels of heavy metals, specifically lead, mercury, and arsenic.[15] The public health implications of such metallic contaminants in India are unknown.[15]

Ah Wikipedia, the gold standard in science.

I looked into the citations and they seemed reliable, so I trust it. Just put it there because it presented the point succinctly.

What motivation, to promote pseudo science or make there mythology science proof.

Tempted to be dismissive while China’s best, brightest, and richest seem to favour the political environment in the West.

I don't think the facts on the ground bear out your assertion.

Over the past 15 years the Chinese government has had quite a lot of success encouraging both high profile and more junior scientists to return to China (some of whom left as children) with good faculty positions and large research support.

Certainly many of the wealthy want to move some assets out of the country (that's the "richest" you discuss) but few are moving wholesale as happens with, say, many wealthy Russians.

To the opposite, the west provides a buffer region where people with insights can swing in between. Also, universities in China are way behind compared to western ones, but the later ones also serve Chinese students well. Such system benefits all.

> universities in China are way behind compared to western ones, but the later ones also serve Chinese students well

I would be interested to learn more about this. Do the Chinese have different educational needs to those of students in the west?

He likely means that they are at least adequate. They are mostly adequate. The average Chinese university is not very good and has corruption and plagiarism problems that would be scandalous in North America or Europe but they’re so, so much better than average African universities.

Edit: You should write about the Oxford M.Sc. CS and submit it. People would be interested.

> You should write about the Oxford M.Sc. CS

I get quite a lot of email from people on HN about it actually, but am a little overwhelmed with a number of other things to try and put something cohesive together. If anyone wants a free blog article, feel free to send me a bunch of questions, and I'll reply and you can write them up. In summary: part-time MSc in Software Engineering from Oxford, meant to be done while working, existing undergrad degree not a hard requirement.

I'm not sure either way, but "seem" may be the right word given the huge chinese population number:

1) Disregarding reality for a second, consider 2 populations (one small, one large) and then assume identical probability for a student to study abroad, say one in 30 for example. Of course there will be more student from the populous to the less populous nation... Stated otherwise, how many exchange student have you seen from Luxembourg?

2) To explain richest: it is quite conceivable that kids of the rich have better access to education, so seeing a student from China (or anywhere really) has a statistical tendency of being correlated with wealth anyway.

3) Considering best, brightest: these will have a higher probability of getting permission and / or funds to study abroad. On the other hand, have you ever compared the visiting Chinese students with those that stayed in China? Perhaps the best and brightest are staying in China...

4) In order to conclude the higher quality of education in the West, you assume that the student's motivation to study in the West is it's supposed higher quality of education. This is a circular reasoning. This may be true, or false. Other reasons for studying in the West could be they perceive it like most students perceive studies abroad: an exercise in self-reliance, temporary freedom from family obligations, a vacation in what they might perceive as Disney World / Hollywood to be combined with their studies, ... this would certainly clarify the observation of "richer" Chinese students.

Most of these variables are outside of my measurement scope, so I can make no assertions on their veracity or lack thereof. I only wish to convey that the statement you made seems to make a lot of assumptions that I consider them dangerous and naive to blindly assume, if such assumption happens collectively in order to pat each other's backs...

> Tempted to be dismissive while China’s best, brightest, and richest seem to favour the political environment in the West.

That works both ways. China has a so called 1000 talents plan. Effectively a lottery for USD ~$3m for a person with a PhD level education and a passable business plan.

I personally knew one exceptional foreign chemist who, after living in China for 15 years, finally dared to do "deal with the devil" and managed to land a defence contract. She was just 27 when she started her business as a continuation of her PhD.

> China has a so called 1000 talents plan

From Wikipedia:

> The Thousand Talents program primarily targets Chinese citizens who were educated in elite programs overseas and who have been successful as entrepreneurs, professionals, and researchers

I mean if anything this feels like confirmation of my original point. You only need to invest significant time and treasure into luring people back if they're leaving.

Not only Chinese citizens, and by a big stretch...

How much do you really know about that?

If you look beyond the next couple of years everything boils down to economic strength and resources/population size. The two are related.

China is a massive country, with a lot of resources, the largest population, and their economy has finally woken up after centuries of anemia.

It will reclaim the top spot in most, if not all, fields.

China’s population has already peaked and there are no Han majority nation states with anything close to replacement fertility. Absent uterine replicators China’s population will be dropping for at least the next thirty years.

Also, centuries of humiliation? China was the biggest economy in the world in 1900 and it still had Mongolia. China had one bad century.

It is quite irrelevant whether population has peaked. It is 4x the US's.

I mentioned centuries of anemia, not humiliation. China had fallen way behind the West by 1900. The US had become the largest economy in the world by 1890 with a population much smaller than China's. China's economy might have been the largest before that but it does not mean it was dynamic.

All of this does not really address my point apart from alluding to the fact that China used to be the largest economy. I'm saying that it is on its way to reclaiming its crown BUT in a position of strength compared to its position of weakness (and humiliation) in the 19th century.

I always though that China's best strength was in "field applications" of technology than in institutional development.

China should, for once, stop chasing the West and develop its own strong sides.

There are already many things where China got genuine uncontestable lead over the rest of the world, but which most of Chinese themselves don't realise:

1. Excellent system of 2 year technical education

2. Highly experienced manufacturing specialists when it comes to "doing engineering at manufacturing site"

3. Industry that is much more eager to pick up new technologies than Western one.

Surely the point of developing their own scientific capabilities is to break free of technical and scientific direction set by the West? The reason China has focused so much on 'field applications' is precisely because they lacked the capability to do much original research and so specialized in applying foreign technology cheaply and at scale.

China is rapidly approaching parity with the west in terms of infrastructure and industrial development. The only way to keep pushing forward is to develop new technologies of their own, rather than relying on foreigners to develop the tech first and then copy it. That worked fine up to a point, but staying with that approach indefinitely dooms them to perpetually playing catch-up.

No no no, my point is exactly the opposite!

> The reason China has focused so much on 'field applications' is precisely because they lacked the capability to do much original research and so specialized in applying foreign technology cheaply and at scale.

I want to say that being good in 'field applications' is a really strong side of Chinese, but they wont acknowledge that. China's official 'know-how promotion' policy is to keep pumping tenth of billions into institutionalised research, and keep people grinding cookie cutter PhDs.

For example, one of the biggest breakthroughs in making lithium batteries economically has been done in China without much publicity: the "open air process" that some no-name factory invented to make cells without shielding them with copious amounts of inert gas, and that allowed to make battery cells without sealed, fully robotised manufacturing lines.

In our own company, the two best paid employees after the boss are two middle aged guys of exceptional ability when it comes to designing plastic injections molds. They don't even have higher education of any kind besides 2 year introductory level schooling in engineering college. But when it comes to making molds, they are gods. They can make you anything from plastic bathtubs to aerospace grade composite parts in a day or two.

Comments from China.

As an ordinary Chinese people, I'd say most comments are unbiased and true. There's no doubt that China has improved in a number of fields over the last 4 decades since our policy is to aim at promoting economy, education, technology, public facilities, and many other areas. We have 5 thousand histories thereby we do know how to make a country thrive and flourish since the history follows the natural course and tells truth. We work hard to study and to work because we domestically have 1.4b fellows to compete for a better life. We are united since the country virtually disappeared due to world war II and 40m died in this national defense warfare. It's easy to imagine what would happen if the 1.4b have the same dream to revive their country.

As for communist that some western residents of the earth are afraid to discuss, as we counted it as an enemy in 1990s, it is just another ideology. You could say we have no right to vote for an election and to participate in politics. It's true but we also have People's Congress that is composed of represents from professions of the legal, business, politic, science, etc. They present proposals and vote for them. So the truth is not that the president controls everyone and everything.

So will China dominate science? Possibly. We are living in a global village nowadays, and as human beings, we have some serious global issues to tackle, I don't believe only one or two countries could fix them all. Collaboration is what I think the foremost to develop human civilization.

One thing I always curious about: how can chinese do any meaningful science in their language when most of the science (as far as I'm aware) is in Latin alphabet? They don't even have an alphabet, do they? If so, how do they translate all that information, is that even possible?

Most scientists can read and write English just fine.

Have you considered whether Chinese academics might be able to read English?

Western commentators have be predicting that one social phenomenon or another would lead to a democratic awakening in China for decades: The collapse of the USSR, economic liberalisation, the growth of the middle class, generational shift, the internet, growing prosperity, falling prosperity, etc.

We must be pretty far down the list if we're now proposing that career scientists will lead a political revolution.

> We must be pretty far down the list if we're now proposing that career scientists will lead a political revolution.

Andrei Sakharov, a scientist and developer of the Soviet H-Bomb, was one of the Soviet Union's most prominent dissidents and human rights activists.

Don't underestimate China

Hey, if Stalin could do it:

“The scientists and engineers at a sharashka were prisoners picked from various camps and prisons and assigned to work on scientific and technological problems for the state.” - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharashka

“Well-fed and well-clothed but supervised by Party and police functionaries with little knowledge of aviation, Tupolev and his team of 150 specialists worked under the threat of harsh reprisal for the least setback.” - https://www.amazon.com/Stalins-Aviation-Gulag-Memoir-Tupolev...

Quite out of touch. No Russian I have ever worked with in the US has ever wanted to return to Russia. Russia has truly squandered their deep talent and potential over the decades.

While more than half the Chinese friends I made during grad school in the US after completing their PhD's or after getting work experience have returned home.

The results speak for themselves in the kind of companies the two countries have produced. There is no comparison between how Russia and China have treated their talent.

Yes, the Soviets lagged in consumer and commercial computing but for supersonic aircraft, radar, SAMs and ICBMs , space, etc, they held their own.

Weird to judge contemporary China by the behavior of a Soviet dictator who's been dead for 65 years.

Well (a) he's making a joke and (b) it's not that weird to compare two communist, authoritarian regimes.

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