The scale of opportunities available to Scotland’s world-class research community in China’s giant economy is vast – with that nation’s total research budget weighing in at between £4 billion and £5 billion per year.
I have just returned from a short but productive trip to China, where I met influential scientific and research figures to see where the Royal Society of Edinburgh could bring value to enhance scientific and cultural links between the two countries.
Can we meet Chinese ambition
I am enormously optimistic. There is a desire and a will in China to work with world-leading, high-quality researchers – as we have here in Scotland. There are aspects of our own contribution to the world that the Chinese admire and would wish to work with us on. However, a major obstacle remains: can we meet Chinese ambition with match-funding that could create a step-change in Scotland’s research base?
The Chinese recognise science is vital to creating and growing successful economies, hence the huge scale of their research budget, 2 per cent of GDP with a target of 2.5 per cent. In the UK, our budget has been frozen at 0.68 per cent of GDP since 2010. While our minister for science deserves credit for protecting that level at a time of austerity, it ill-behoves a government seeking to create a knowledge-based economy to see the research budget as one of relatively low priority.
Scotland can gain enormously from access to Chinese partnerships and funding. However, the problem is likely to lie in our ability to match-fund what the Chinese are prepared to invest. We need to rise to the challenge to maximise the opportunities.
Those I met included Professor Yang Wei, president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and Professor Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Both are on the science and education steering group that reports directly to the prime minister, sets science and education policy and provides guidelines for government budgeting. From my conversations with them and others, it is apparent the Chinese see many areas where collaboration and partnerships would be beneficial – for example in renewable energy, particle physics, marine science, biodiversity, plant genetics and food security as well as in areas of medical research such as stem cell technology, neuroscience and infectious diseases.
Our universities are already building relationships in China, and there are splendid examples of collaboration. However, much still needs to be done.
Scientific, engineering and cultural expertise
Aside from the financial challenge – which will require the support of the Scottish and UK governments – we must also ensure that we have a regular dialogue, in particular in those areas where our expertise and experience is of greatest potential. A group visit comprising representatives of hi-tech firms, policymakers and researchers would be welcomed.
While our scientific and engineering expertise is world-renowned, and will take much of the focus, we should not forget our strong cultural offering. I met with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – which has more than 4000 researchers and is an important “think-tank” for the Chinese government in all matters relating to the humanities. A University of Pennsylvania survey into world think-tanks. ranked Cass first in Asia.
We established a memorandum of understanding between Cass and the RSE to establish a programme of scholarly exchanges, joint international conferences and research programmes. The first workshop is likely to be on one of the founders of the RSE, Adam Smith, widely studied and revered in China. We also spoke at length with senior researchers from the Institute of Microbiology, and with the Institute of Genetics and Development Biology.
The Chinese are focused on the commercialisation of research. The ability to commercialise research weighs heavily when they are making decisions.
The RSE will be speaking with the Scottish Government on the results of our visit and the opportunities we believe it presents.
We were fortunate in that, while in China, we discussed the way forward with the UK’s ambassador, Sebastian Wood, with his political counsellor, Dan Chugg, First Secretary (Scotland) John Somers and Dr Alicia Greated, director of Research Council UK based in Beijing. All were strongly supportive of the visit, and of our proposal to return to China with a delegation from academia and industry. We hope we can also gain the support of the UK and Scottish governments.
• Sir John Arbuthnott is president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh www.royalsoced.org.uk