China Seeks Status As Scientific Superpower Chinese leaders are pouring money into research and development in a bid to rejoin the ranks of the world's top technological innovators. Beijing is also luring back Chinese scientists from overseas. But money and manpower may not be enough.

China Aims To Renew Status As Scientific Superpower

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: I'm Melissa block.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.


BLOCK: This week, we begin a series on China's return as a technological superpower. It was arguably the world's first such superpower - inventing the compass, gunpowder and block printing. But Chinese science then languished for centuries. Now, leaders in Beijing are pouring money into research and development. It's a kind of techno-nationalism.

NPR's Loisa Lim reports on where all that money is going.

LOUISA LIM: Up until 1893, the Chinese language didn't even have a word for science. That's how much of a latecomer China is to modern science. But recently, China's leaders have been making up for lost time. They've invested heavily in brainpower, providing funds to lure home Chinese scientists working overseas.

One is Fan Heng. A quantum computing expert, he moved from UCLA to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2005. A decade ago, he says, most scientists were desperate to leave China. But those same scientists are now desperate to tap into those funds to come back.

FAN HENG: Ten years ago, we wanted to go abroad to have experience. But now, we want to come back to concentrate on our research. Gradually, the trend has changed completely. Some researchers want to go back to China, but there are not so many opportunities for them.

Premier WEN JIABAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: China cannot develop without developing science and technology, says Premier Wen Jiabao. So today, two official schemes have brought back more than 3,100 top-flight academics, offering them tenured positions, research labs and one-time bonuses. The brain gain is even more extensive when it comes to Ph.D.s. That's according to the Monitor Group's Michael Zielenziger, who's written on the topic.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: To me, 80,000 Ph.D.s coming home from the States, from Europe, to work in Chinese laboratories is a pretty impressive number, especially when you consider that when it comes to things like clinical trials, you can run a lab bench in China for 20 cents of the dollar it costs in the United States.

LIM: And official spending on science will only increase, even as U.S. budgets are cut. China's R and D spending will be hiked to 2.2 percent of GDP in 2015 - from 1.7 percent now - with a focus on specific fields like nanotechnology, clean energy and stem cell research.

Dr. ALAN TROUNSON: They're putting a lot of money into this area. So I'm amazed how much money. And so, when I look at the facilities and the equipment going into these places, its first rate. It's as good as you see anywhere in any new facility in the world.

LIM: Alan Trounson is president of California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. He was blown away after visiting China for the first time in five years.

TROUNSON: I'm rocked. I really am rocked with what this country can do in such a short time. Imagine, the next five years or next 10 years, and I would think it's very likely that the science here will be the dominant science, probably in the world.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A hothouse of science now rising again.

LIM: Amid the headlines, even the White House science adviser, John Holdren, has admitted that if the U.S. doesn't improve its game, China could - as he put it - eat our lunch. Denis Simon, from the University of Oregon, has advised the Chinese government on science policy. He puts the figures in context.

DENIS SIMON: If you would compare in absolute dollars, the Chinese are spending about a third, or a little bit more than what the U.S. is putting into science and technology development. So over the last two years, China's spending on R and D has averaged over 20-plus percent growth. And that's kind of a remarkable increase.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thirty-five people have been confirmed dead...

LIM: But a recent deadly crash on what was supposed to be the world's most advanced high-speed rail network shows the perils of overreach. China spent $300 billion on the network, but it's been plagued by corruption, undermining safety standards. And so a proud technological achievement has become an embarrassment.

Speaking before the accident, Denis Simon told NPR that China's leadership was unsure their investment in science and technology was bearing fruit.

SIMON: The anxiety, I think, that exists at the central leadership levels is that after spending all of this money and buying all this equipment and training all these people, they're still not seeing the bang for the buck, as we would say in the West. There is this kind of trepidation to break the mold, so we don't see a lot of radical innovation in China.

LIM: So what's holding China back? One answer could lie in a recent scientific scandal - a leading geologist sacked after accusations he embezzled $1.5 million of research funding to spend on his three mistresses.

Indeed, the Chinese Academy of Sciences admitted it spent $44 million last year on overseas trips, official cars and conferences. A political culture of corruption, prestige projects and top-down obedience could be hindering China's scientific revolution.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.