London, UK (Scicasts) — Following the three decades of rapid economic growth, China has now taken its place as the world’s second largest economy. However, over the last couple of years the growth rates began to decline and are predicted to gradually reach 6.2% by 2017.

A recent economic survey from OECD has defined the current period as the transition point, predicting that China is now entering a “new normal” stage of slower but healthier growth, with the focus shifting towards higher value-added model. For instance, in 2014 China spent over 2% of its GDP on research and development, which are widely recognized as important factors for sustainable economic growth.

In light of these ongoing changes, China has been attracting attention of some major international research organizations such as Research Councils UK (RCUK), who opened their first overseas office in Beijing in 2007. A global publisher Macmillan opened their Chinese chapter in Shanghai in June 2013.

China is currently one of the best places in the world for businesses to expand into. Scicasts recently opened a brand-new office in Hong Kong and we will soon be undertaking deep analysis of the Chinese research landscape.

Tim El-Sheikh, CEO of Scicasts

Therefore, it has become increasingly important for international partners to understand the Chinese research landscape and be aware of potential challenges as well as strong points.

Charlotte Liu, President of Springer Nature in Greater China, explains to Scicasts: “As we are embedded in the research community in China, we naturally became very curious not only about publishing the end products of research but also about what overall challenges people here experienced in their research career: how they get funding, how they collaborate with others, whether they have enough talent in their labs and what kind of training they would need to progress their career.”

To explore the current state of scientific research in China and identify its future directions, Nature Publishing Group recently surveyed over 1700 academic researchers from a number of institutions across the country, who have publications in NPG journals. The results of the survey have been summarized in a white paper “Turning Point: Chinese Science in Transition” and was released at the end of last month.

Here we follow up on the release of the white paper, combining it with some additional insights from RCUK on the state of science research and funding in China.

Academic Funding and Translating Research into Innovation

China’s investment in R&D increased dramatically over the past decades, leading to a significant increase in the country’s scientific output. China now holds the second place in the world after the US by the amount of published scientific articles and the Nature Index values, which serve as important indicators of high-quality research.

However, the NPG white paper shows that the average academic as well as wide-range impact of Chinese research does not match its growth in output. The study also showed that despite large amounts of funding allocated to R&D (1,331 billion RMB in 2014), most of these funds were dedicated to technology development as opposed to innovative research and were spent by the industry.

A large proportion of researchers interviewed by NPG feel that securing funding has become more difficult over the last five years. This may partly be due to increasing competition as more Chinese-born researchers who chose to spend some time studying and working abroad are now returning to China. Foreign-born students and researchers are also turning their attention to China’s improving science environment.

“We can expect that within the next five years or so, not exceeding 10 years, there will be a wave of foreign students coming to study in China from across the globe, just like the situation in Japan in the 80s,” remarks a principal investigator from Xi’an, who participated in the survey.

However, the more important factor identified by the study seems to be the structure of the funding system and how the funds are allocated to projects. Basic science projects, for instance, receive only 5% of all funds spent on R&D in China, compared to 18% in the US, 16% in the UK and 12% in Japan.

“Especially for very basic research, our country does not provide enough support. However, basic research projects are usually essential for the promotion of the overall soft power of a nation,” says a principal investigator from Nanjing. This opinion is shared by over 80% of the Chinese researchers surveyed by NPG.

Most of the study participants also believe that funding bodies do not take sufficient risks to fund innovative ‘blue-sky’ research ideas. “It’s very hard to get grants if you write some very original or innovative ideas in your proposal. Reviewers may not understand your idea or they may think that’s too risky and don’t believe you can make it...” says a principal investigator from Xi’an.

But researchers admit that the approach to funding innovative projects is beginning to change. For instance, the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC) has introduced its General Program, which provides large amounts of funding to 15,000 grants per year and allows academics to freely choose their research topics within the funding areas defined by NSFC. Funding under these grants is provided for 4 years and is capped at 800,000 RMB (approx. £81,000).

The Research Councils have jointly-funded programmes with China in energy, environment and food security, green growth and cities, health and life sciences and creative and digital economy.

Grace Lang, Director of Research Councils UK (RCUK) China

Director of RCUK China, Grace Lang, also points out the recent changes. “China is aware of the need to invest more in basic research,” says Ms. Lang. “As part of China’s national Science and Technology Funding Reform, the Chinese government stated that funding for basic and frontier research will be increased to around £10 billion by 2020, an increase from £5.55 billion in 2013.”

“The levels of R&D funding have been growing rapidly in China,” says President of Springer Nature in Greater China, Charlotte Liu. “However, the percentage of funding allocated to basic research is still fairly low compared to more developed countries. A lot of funding agencies have already admitted this and they now see this white paper as a very useful validation which can be used in negotiations [with the government].”

“Things have improved a lot with some special schemes in recent years,” notes a principal investigator from Xi’an. Many of the survey’s respondents see these as very promising steps forward but believe that there is still much room for improvement in the system.

Ms. Lang also notes a growing trend in China towards supporting young scientists. For instance, the ‘1,000 Talent Program’, which proved very successful in bringing home senior Chinese scientists working overseas, also includes a ‘1,000 Young Talent Program’ aimed specifically at researchers under the age of 40.

Other international programs, such as the one jointly funded by the Newton Fund (also called UK-China Research and Innovation Fund), the British Council and the China Scholarship Council, allow young researchers to receive PhD placements in overseas laboratories, to facilitate the capacity building of individuals in certain research areas.

RCUK have programmes to support early career researchers and we have introduced some of those programmes to China.

Grace Lang, Director of Research Councils UK (RCUK) China

However, the NPG experts conclude that this may not be enough to fully support young principal investigators. The information collected by NPG suggests that the most accessible programs for young researchers such as NSFC’s General Program, Young Scientists Fund and start-up funding from institutes, usually provide between 200K to 800K RMB (approx.. £20,000-80,000) for a 3- to 4-year term. This level may not be enough, say the experts, to establish and sustain the most innovative labs.

In addition to the lack of funding sources, researchers find that with a typical 10-15% cap on the salary compensation for their employees they cannot afford to scale up their experiments.

“For all the grant money I’ve got, I am still not able to hire the people I need to do the proposed research, as I don’t have the money to pay their salaries ... My grant allows me to spend a lot of money on equipment. But without enough personnel to carry out the experiments, the spending would be a waste,” explains a principal investigator from Xi’an.

The survey participants also questioned the decision-making in grant allocations and called for transparency and more merit-based peer review. “Their reviewers are selected from a pool of experts,” says a principal investigator from Shanghai. “To ensure the effectiveness and fairness of an evaluation system, the premise is to have enough qualified expert reviewers, so that you have the capacity to judge if the proposed research really meets your high standard.”

The narrow specialization of reviewers and decision makers also makes it difficult for many researchers, especially young principal investigators, to obtain funding through generous ‘megaproject’ grants. These large grants provide up to several millions of RMB over the course of 5 years to a small number of ‘megaprojects’ aligned with national strategies.

Similar programs implemented in other countries across the world yielded impressive outcomes. However, the experts find that in China the research topics for megaprojects are often proposed by a small group of high-profile experts selected by policy makers and the narrowly defined guidelines and conditions significantly restrict the pool of potential grant recipients.

Scientists not awarded with a megaproject grant often need to apply for funding from several independent sources, which can take away a significant amount of time from their research. Around two fifths of the surveyed principal investigators reported that along with the filling out of the paperwork on the grant spending, they dedicated more than 20% of their time on funding-related activities.

China has a massive research community and the Chinese government is keen to make sure money invested in research is well spent. Having a well-regulated funding processes is therefore crucial.

Grace Lang, Director of Research Councils UK (RCUK) China

“It’s unnecessary to have such frequent evaluations and reviews,” says a senior principal investigator from Shanghai. “It overburdens not only the applicants, but also the reviewers. That means a double burden for senior scientists.”

Another senior group leader from Beijing explains that scientific research, which is inherently based on assumptions, will always carry a significant amount of uncertainty. “I can not predict everything accurately; in many cases I need to change the original plan. But the procedure to adjust it is very complicated, this is not reasonable and it’s a waste of time.”

Based on the collected information, the experts from Nature Publishing Group make a number of key suggestions for Chinese policy and funding decision makers.

“We want to use this white paper as a thought leadership piece, to hold discussions with the government and funding agencies,” says Ms. Liu.

The experts point out that the Chinese funding bodies could drive profound innovation and long-term rewards by investing more in basic research, “blue sky” ideas and providing more funding for young scientists.

They also suggest that funding efficiency and transparency can be significantly improved with more merit-based peer review and engagement of the broader research community when conceptualizing and awarding megaproject grants.

Finally, it seems important at this stage to reduce administrative hurdles for researchers and optimize the academics’ flexibility in grant spending. These measures, as suggested by the survey participants, will ensure better research productivity as scientists will be allowed more time to focus on research itself.

“At Springer Nature, we see ourselves as a partner to funding agencies, including the NSFC. Together we can lead the community and help develop the right policies which would be in the best interest of Chinese science in general and individual researchers in particular,” says Ms. Liu.

Ms. Liu also points out another important challenge facing China – translation of academic research into innovation. The country’s focus is now shifting from relying on export, to promoting domestic consumption and innovative areas, such as translational medicine, have been gaining attention over the last years.

“Many new laws have been implemented to promote translation of research into innovation and open new ways to commercialize research outcomes into new business models or ventures. But it is still at a very early stage in China,” explains Ms. Liu.

“To explore these issues, Springer Nature in partnership with the Shanghai Association for Science and Technology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences are co-hosting a conference in Shanghai.”

The international forum “From Research to Innovation and Entrepreneurship” took place in Shanghai on the 10th of December and was attended by over 200 scientists, University Presidents, policy makers, R&D executives and business leaders from home and abroad. The forum discussions focused on how research and science can drive innovation, fuel entrepreneurship, and ultimately build a sustainable knowledge economy in China.

We want the participants of the Shanghai forum to engage in a dialogue and exchange valuable information from different sides.

Charlotte Liu, Managing Director of Macmillan Science (Greater China) and Education (Asia)

Conducting and Communicating Academic Research

Apart from funding and translation of research results, the white paper identified a number of other challenges facing Chinese scientists.

Over three quarters of all surveyed researchers consistently reported the lack of training at an early stage of their career. The problem was most acutely felt by those who have not had a chance to gain research experience overseas.

One of the reasons behind this, as the white paper has identified, is the hierarchical structure of the Chinese research system where young principal investigators typically start their laboratories in affiliation with a senior group leader. Similar principles operate in other countries such as Germany and Japan; however, senior principal investigators in China seem to be overburdened with administrative duties, which leaves them with almost no time to mentor young researchers.

“The biggest barrier to mentoring is that senior scientists are too busy today, with all the grant application and review and much additional work to do such as administrative meetings... If these distractions can be reduced, I'd really like to spend more time in the lab with the young scientists,” explains a senior principal investigator from Shanghai.

Lack of postdoctoral researchers in academic laboratories seems to be another reason for the excessive amount of pressure felt by senior researchers. Many young scientists in China still choose to spend a significant amount of time as postdoctoral fellows abroad as this improves their chances of gaining group leader positions in China upon return.

Researchers felt that too much emphasis on the international working experience as well as insufficient compensation for contract-based researchers in China were driving their scientists away, creating a lack of experienced workforce to assist in training students and young researchers.

Overall, young researchers reported the lack of training in a variety of areas, such as laboratory and project management, ethics training and particularly in manuscript writing. The majority of those surveyed reported spending more than one working day per week on paper writing, and some reported spending more than half of their time writing articles.

The number of publications in high impact factor journals remains the foremost criteria in defining the researcher’s success in China. As the number of papers coming out of China increases, Chinese scientists are aiming higher, with 87% of the surveyed scientists indicating that they are likely to publish relatively fewer papers each year in future, but with the aim of targeting higher profile journals.

Yet most of the surveyed scientists feel that they received far less training in this area than they needed. Language barrier, say researchers, is only a part of the challenge. Many courses provided by the research institutions focus primarily on the English grammar while missing out on the issues such as the article structure or building a compelling logical argument.

“Many scientific writing courses in China would be run by an English department at the university,” explains Ms. Liu. “However, a lot of the issues are not language specific. A lot of scientists around the world are not native English speakers and yet they still successfully conduct and publish scientific research.”

“In Western countries, they start writing essays early,” comments a principal investigator from Beijing. “It’s integrated in their undergraduate education. Or [they emphasize writing] even since primary schools or secondary schools. But this is lacking from our education system.”

The experts from Springer Nature are now working to communicate their findings to major decisions-makers at the universities and research institutes in China. “We advocate for science issues and give them an overview of things that need to be addressed,” says Ms. Liu. “We also talk to them about training programs that they provide and analyzing whether they have the right programs suitable to the needs of their researchers.”

As a potential solution to this, Nature Publishing Group is offering researchers to take part in Nature Masterclasses on scientific writing using a case study approach.

“We would look at a manuscript and look deeper into what makes the paper good or what needs to be improved. We discuss how to write abstracts, manage figures and other issues. It’s very interactive and discipline specific,” Ms. Liu describes the course.

The Masterclasses, which the publisher have been offering to researchers for the past 2 years, have become so popular that NPG is now looking for ways to scale up the training and combine face-to-face classes with online modules.

“We are now in discussions with the NSFC on what we can do to scale it up,” says Ms. Liu. “We believe that if a research group has high impact (or even incremental impact) results, writing skills should not become an impediment for these results to be published. We would like to remove these barriers and give researchers the tools to successfully write and publish their results.”

Finally, the white paper identifies that communicating research results to the wider public is an increasingly important issue for Chinese scientists. According to a survey conducted this year by the China Association for Science and Technology only about 6.2% of Chinese citizens have basic scientific literacy, lagging significantly behind leading developed nations.

“But as we are faced with environmental issues such as pollution and food safety, people are now becoming more aware of the amount of taxpayers’ money being invested in research,” points out Ms. Liu. “People now want to know how science is benefitting the society and how it is providing solutions to our problems.”

Although Chinese scientists recognize the importance of communicating their research to the wider public, only around half of those surveyed had experience of some type of science communication in the past three years. Apart from the lack of time to engage with public, researchers are concerned about the quality of scientific communication outlets.

“All journalists I met or heard of in China’s science communication media are from an arts education background, which means they have not received any physical or chemistry education after high school ... Research is complicated, involving a series of issues and dependencies. Ignorance of one message could lead to a totally wrong story,” comments a principal investigator from Shanghai.

However, another reason behind the lack of public engagement among Chinese scientists may be less obvious and more culture-specific, suggests the study.

“To our surprise, a lot of younger researchers told us that they avoid engaging in the public communication of science because it might be considered immodest,” says Ms. Liu. “The Chinese culture is very respectful to senior scientists who are generally considered to have earned their right to talk to the public about scientific issues. There is a very culture-specific element to it, although I am not sure if it’s specific to China or to Asian culture in general.”

The experts from NPG suggest that changes in the attitude may improve understanding between researchers and the wider society. They also propose options such as tying science communication to the researcher’s assessment as well as relieving senior scientists from excessive administrative hurdles, in order to allow them more time to participate in public engagements.

In the Research Councils’ co-funded programmes with China, researchers from both countries are also encouraged to develop public engagement plans. We have seen positive changes in the Chinese researchers’ view of communicating science in [the] recent couple of years.

Grace Lang, Director of Research Councils UK (RCUK) China

It is also important, say the experts, to cultivate more awareness in the scientific community about the concepts of open data and open access to research results through public discussions and events. For instance, the Chinese Academy of Sciences now holds annual China Open Access Week in Beijing, which is regularly attended by international partners such as RCUK.

Representatives from RCUK, who took part in China Open Access Week 2015, point out that the event was well attended by researchers, research institutions and publishers. “Awareness of open access and data sharing among the science community [in China] is growing,” says Ms. Lang.

The Future Outlook

Conducting extensive field studies like this one is a relatively new trend for Springer Nature. Following the release of this white paper, the publisher is considering updating the report after several years or alternatively, focus on different aspects of the research ecosystem.

“We want to be more than just a publisher,” explains Ms. Liu. “We want to be a trusted voice and a part of the Chinese research community. That’s why we want to stimulate these discussions and debates.

“This is a very global effort, initiated in the China office but involving a large number of people of different cities. We should also consider doing this in other countries where science in developing very rapidly. It will be very valuable to those communities as well.”

What is your opinion on the state of science research landscape in China? Share your views and thoughts below.