Q&A

Is China the world's new scientific superpower?

China's science program is immense, ambitious and changing the world. Science columnist Torah Kachur explains the rise of China as scientific superpower.

New research shows China is second only to the United States in scientific output

China's Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) is the largest radio telescope in the world. It took only 5 years to complete. (FAST)

China is fast becoming a scientific force to be reckoned with, says a new report published by Nature.

The list, which ranks the world's institutions and countries according to their scientific output, puts China second only to the United States. The rankings are based on the number of high profile publications released last year. 

Canada ranked 7th, which, considering the difference in the sheer number of scientists compared with China or the U.S., is pretty impressive. 

The top institution in terms of publications was the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a massive engine of scientific growth in the country. It consists of hundreds of regional institutes and includes two universities. To put it in perspective for something us Westerners understand — it beat out Harvard.

The University of Toronto ranked the highest in Canada at 18th.

What is China investing in?

The Chinese government has indicated it wants to invest energy and funds in brain research, gene science, big data and medical robots.

But perhaps the most ambitious scientific project is the Chinese space program. The largest radio telescope in the world was recently built in southwestern China, and took only five years to complete.
According to Chinese state media, China plans to launch an orbiter that will deploy a lander and rover onto the surface of Mars in 2020. (The Associated Press)

These radio telescopes are massive in order to listen to some of the weakest and faintest signals from the furthest reaches of the universe. They've also planned a mission to the far side of the moon in 2018 and intend to send a rover to Mars in 2020. 

And from the biggest objects in the universe to the smallest, China plans to build a particle accelerator larger than the one currently in operation in Europe at the CERN facility.

How much money is the government spending?

China spends a whopping $40 billion per year on scientific research, more than any nation other than the U.S.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the country's top economic official, said earlier this year that "innovation is the primary driving force for development and must occupy a central place in China's development strategy."
Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, right, shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Keqiang said earlier this year that 'innovation is the primary driving force for development' in China. (The Associated Press)

China's goal is clear: to expand the economy by using the brains of their people. All of the investment has resulted in something that's been dubbed the "brain boomerang" — in the past several years, 4,000 Chinese academics have left the West to return to lucrative offers in their homeland. 

What kind of reaction has there been to China's scientific ascension?

Given the rapid pace of scientific growth in China, there are concerns that regulations will need time to catch up. 

Scientists in China made headlines - and courted controversy - by editing the genome of human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 system. (Richard Wheeler, cc-by-sa-3.0)
Scientists in China made headlines in 2015 by editing the genome of human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 system. This is a technology that goes in and changes the genetic code of an embryo. Essentially, it can rewrite the instruction manual of a human.  

The research led to a moratorium by various scientific bodies around the world, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, on using the technique until proper regulations and scientific agreement was in place. 

There's also the geopolitics of international space programs to consider. NASA will not work with the Chinese Space Agency because they worry about sharing technology of satellites, programs, strategies that could breach U.S. national security.  

As well, academic fraud is at an all-time high in China. According to Nature, the vast majority of retractions due to academic fraud come from Chinese universities. 

There's no doubt China is leading the way in terms of investing in science and pushing their vision for an innovation-backed economic future. But the rapid pace of their scientific growth comes with costs and issues that could reverberate around the globe. 

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of scienceinseconds.com.

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