Shift to strategic international research collaboration

A shift is under way in China from making a mark globally as a research power, towards an increasingly strategic ‘innovation diplomacy’ that is shaping “the spread and intensity of its global research and innovation relationships”, according to a new study.

The report by NESTA, formerly the non-profit National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts in the United Kingdom, notes that “an ever-intensifying web of international connections has spread across every aspect of China’s innovation system – from joint academic research to technology transfer and licensing, foreign direct investment, mergers and acquisitions.

“As a result the Chinese system is densely connected to sources of expertise elsewhere.”

In the 2000s China was intent on building up domestic research capacity, and there has been a dramatic rise in articles published in international journals. Now, alongside a continued supportive environment for home-grown research, the country is turning to a more sophisticated assessment of what the world has to offer.

There is a willingness “to buy expertise off the shelf”, according to China’s Absorptive State: Innovation and research in China, which was released on Monday.

“China is in an absorptive state, increasingly adept at attracting and profiting from global knowledge and networks,” it said.

The country is “starting to become more selective about where it sources its knowledge and focusing on partners who can make a significant collaborative contribution”.

“Time and again we see examples of highly targeted collaborations in research and innovation,” according to the NESTA report.

Preferred partners

The United States has long been a favoured partner, according to the report. “It now accounts for a bigger share of a bigger pot.” In 2011 more than 10% of China’s research publications had a US co-author.

The UK has also slightly increased its share of collaborative papers to around 2.5% and recently moved ahead of Japan as China’s second most popular research collaboration partner. European nations such as Germany and France have fallen slightly in their collaborative share to below 2%, and Canada’s share is now rising.

Australia’s collaboration has doubled as a share of China’s research publication output over the last two decades, and it is now ahead of Germany with a share approaching the UK’s.

Collaboration with the smaller research economies of South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan is growing but has “flattened slightly” at 1% each, “possibly limited by the size and therefore the collaborative capacity of those nations”, according to the report.

“There is no perfect formula for high-impact collaborations with China.”

National goals

In 2012 China’s total research and development, or R&D, expenditure exceeded CNY1 trillion (US$163 billion) – an 18% increase on the previous year.

Gross expenditure on R&D as a share of gross domestic product rose from 0.5% in mid-1992 to 1.97% in 2012 – “a huge absolute spending rise in an economy that grew by a factor of 10 in the same period”, the report noted.

Most of the growth was attributable to the business sector and applied research. Basic research still accounts for less than 5% of total R&D expenditure.

“China will continue to need to import foreign technology and collaborate internationally in technology for some time,” according to the report.

It has set about this in a strategic and targeted fashion.

Adam Segal from the US Council on Foreign Relations is quoted as saying that “one of China’s great strengths has been a laser-like focus on shaping foreign interactions to serve national innovation goals”.

Since the publication of its 2006 Medium and Long-Term National Plan for Science and Technology Development, or MLP, China has moved from general and project-based international cooperation in science and technology to more targeted collaborations, inviting specific foreign collaborators to China as well as going abroad to seek collaborations.

It is clear that absorbing, attracting, improving and owning knowledge from elsewhere is “a core strand of policy”, the report notes, adding that ‘introduce, digest, absorb and re–innovate’, featured prominently in the MLP, which is still the primary blueprint for innovation policy until 2020.

Re-innovation in particular is based on assimilation and absorption of imported technology, according to the 2006 document.

But while the MLP said China should reduce its dependence on foreign technology to 30% by 2020, this was dropped in the 12th Five Year Plan launched in 2011. It stated that China “will actively expand imports of foreign technology” and “bring in senior talent and advanced technology from overseas and encourage foreign enterprises to set up R&D centres in China”.

But the report notes that “previously regarded as a weakness, the quality and speed of China’s capacity for incremental re-innovation is now an important competitive asset”, particularly in the field of manufacturing technologies which previously relied on “substandard imitation”.


Thanks to its policy-driven approach, the report said, China had been “propelled into the top ranks of global innovation, but the process has been inefficient and these policies are now being complemented by a growing focus on efficiency, quality, coordination and evaluation”.

This year the Ministry of Science and Technology released guidelines on research funding and publishing, with outstanding academic papers written in English as one of the key areas it would fund – an indication of the government’s “ambition for Chinese research to make more of an impact on the world”.

However impact, as measured by research citations, remains below the world average at present in most areas with the exception of agricultural research, and the headline figures of overall research publications and patents are treated with some caution.

The strength of research economies like the UK is that they are relatively stable from year to year, the report continued, while China is changing at an unprecedented rate. “This requires a cautious approach to interpreting strengths and weaknesses. Spikes of excellence and pools of mediocrity can be hidden among the averages.”

Experts argue that lack of overall coordination is “creating serious inefficiencies in the system”, such as the ability to deal with the 2003 SARS flu-like virus outbreak, and the problem of prominent researchers “getting identical projects funded by different agencies”.

These are compounded by “deficiencies in national quality controls and evaluations, and serious issues with misconduct and plagiarism in the research system”.

The report acknowledged that China has reached a stage where it is able to absorb advanced technologies, although it is not yet at the stage where it can call itself an innovation nation.

For China to become an innovation power globally, it will have to continue with massive spending on research and innovation and improved management of R&D and research at universities.

China must “run as fast as possible in order to remain at the cusp of the global technological frontier without advancing the frontier itself”, the report said.