We face being buried under an avalanche of Chinese science
Woman scientist touching DNA (Shutterstock)

I was chatting with a friend and collaborator based in Germany recently about the completion of a new building that his university was constructing, dedicated to biomedical imaging sciences. I was sharing my own exhilaration about the serious investment that our government, regional agencies and the EU were making in graphene research at the University of Manchester. At some point in our conversation it became apparent that as extraordinary as the investments in our institutions were, they did not even come close to what we had both experienced from recent trips in China.

Our conclusion was that "for each floor refurbishment in Europe, a new building is built is China, and for each new building in Europe, a new campus is built in China …"

The magnitude of R&D investment in China is unprecedented and well-documented. Nanoscience is a strategically important field in the eyes of Chinese policymakers: a poster-child of new-age, high-tech China. The volume of scientific data generated and published by Chinese laboratories in all areas of nanotechnology has been increasing exponentially.

What I fear is that we all – Asians and westerners alike – run the risk of getting buried under this avalanche of manic scientific output and the oversimplification of capitalist principles applied to science in an artificially consumerist – yet not truly capitalist – society. Let me try to explain.

The key question is whether this surge of research activity in China is going to be translated into industrial leadership, economic growth and benefit to humankind. The assumption of the Chinese ruling class is based on the "American paradigm" of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, that tremendous investment in academic, governmental, military and industrial R&D will lead to world domination in science and business innovation, creating both wealth and power. It is widely believed that Chinese officials, and the majority of the Chinese people, are eager to challenge if not take over world leadership from the US.

There are, however, a few fundamental differences between the United States of the 1950s and China in the 2010s that go well beyond the realms of nanoscience.

First and foremost, after the ravages of fascism and war, the United States of the 1950s was perhaps the most welcoming, positive, liberal and liberating environment worldwide. It opened its capitalist gates to everyone with ambition, vision and creative energy.

Irrespective of our views on the political divide during the cold war era, the fundamental difference between the US and the Soviet Union, or later Japan – which have at times both been in a position to challenge the scientific dominance of the United States – can be summarised in one word: "openness". Openness in a broad sense, including thought, expression, social acceptance, attraction and retention of the brightest foreign minds. I do not think that China today is by any means close to that measure of openness compared with the United States of the 1950s and 1960s.

Second, the US has always been a deeply "western" society, built on European philosophical principles, with the values of independent thinking and dialectic discourse deeply ingrained. Such a mindset allows challenges of the status quo and unconventional thinking that are intricately linked with scientific and entrepreneurial progress. I am still not convinced that these values can be adopted by Chinese (or other Asian societies) where completely different cultures and philosophical principles prevail, for example the strong respect for hierarchical order.

We should therefore recognise the need for a modified version of scientific discourse and practice in China that is, not necessarily worse, but certainly different from that of the Descartian rationalism predominant in western societies. It is enlightening when one realises that going to a conference in Asia will not involve open discussion and challenge ideas, simply because this is considered disrespectful.

Third, the blind adoption of capitalist incentives into the practice of science by the Chinese establishment is outright wrong. For example, if a Chinese colleague publishes an article in a highly regarded scientific journal they will be financially rewarded by the government – yes, a bonus! – on the basis of an officialacademic reward structure. Publication in one of the highest impact journals is currently rewarded with bonuses in excess of $30,000 – which is surely more than the annual salary of a starting staff member in any lab in China.

Such practices are disfiguring the fundamental principles of ethical integrity in scientific reporting and publishing, agreed and accepted by the scientific community worldwide. They introduce motives that have the potential to seriously corrupt the triangular relationship between scientist or clinician, publisher or editor and the public (taxpayer) funding agency. They exacerbate the damage caused by journal quality rankings based on "impact factor", which is already recognised by the scientific community in the west as problematic.

Such measures also do nothing to help Chinese journals gain recognition by the rest of the world, as has been described by two colleagues from Zhejiang University in an article entitled "The outflow of academic articles from China: why is it happening and can it be stemmed?".

I admire Chinese culture, history, creativity and motivation for progress. However, judging from my personal experience in nanoscience and medicine (which I suspect applies to many other disciplines), we have to accept that the scientific landscape is being dramatically remodelled by the way research is being implemented in China. Asian and western academics, politicians, publishers and investors must engage in an honest discussion about the massive changes to the way science is practised, being made by a society that is culturally, linguistically and philosophically very different from those that have a historical tradition in modern scientific discourse.

• Kostas Kostarelos is professor of nanomedicine at the University of Manchester and director of the university's Nanomedicine Lab

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[Scientist Touching Dna Molecule on Shutterstock]