The shifting sands of science


Research infrastructure in Asia is catching up with the West. From here, the main challenge for the region is to manoeuvre research out of rigid policy and into higher quality. By Mohammed Yahia

(From "Horizons" no. 108 March 2016)​​​

In 2014, India became the first country to place a probe into orbit around Mars on the first attempt. A year later, Tu Youyou became the first Chinese Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine. And Saudi Arabia has recently opened a 20-billion-dollar university focusing on science and technology. But just a few decades ago, these countries were still a long way from playing in the top science league.

Since the Renaissance, the West has been dominant in science and research, producing the bulk of humanity’s knowledge in the meantime. In the past two decades, however, we have seen a dramatic shift in the science and research landscape. The East – especially Asia – has seen a sharp rise in research and technology, and this is driving its economic success.

"There is clearly a keen understanding in the leadership circles [in China] that science leads to innovation, which is seen as the best recipe to raise the income level of Chinese people", says Pascal Marmier, CEO of Swissnex China, an outpost aimed at connecting Switzerland with the world’s innovation hubs.

Neighbouring Singapore and India have both also set up ambitious national strategies to turn themselves into knowledge-based economies. Singapore has just announced an increase of 18% in its R&D budget for 2016 compared to 2011 – 2015. Using its huge income as the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia drew up a plan in 2008 to become an Asian leader in science by 2030 and thereby shift the country away from its complete economic reliance on oil. It aims to focus on science instead, and over the past five years has invested billions in cutting-edge universities and research facilities.

All these countries have strong support from top government officials to promote science and technology. According to a forecasts by Battelle, combined public and private spending R&D in Singapore equated to 2.7% of GDP in 2014, while China reached 2%. Five years ago, Qatar pledged 2.8% of its GDP to science research – for comparison, the US invests 2.8% of GDP in research, while in Switzerland it’s 2.9%. "The strategic importance attached to research is indicated by the fact that the National Research Foundation (NRF) answers to the prime minister’s office", says Peter Edwards, the director of the Singapore-ETH Centre, a joint institute launched by ETH Zurich and Singapore’s NRF.

Planned science

While this has allowed countries to jump-start their science endeavours, it has also created challenges for them. Closely monitoring research and tying grants to a national agenda can stifle basic, curiosity-driven research. Three years ago, the Qatar Foundation identified a set of ‘research grand challenges’ on which to focus their funding: cybersecurity, water and energy security, and healthcare. Researchers working on other topics have voiced worries that they will lose their funding, and some have seen research proposals refused because they did not meet the country’s criteria.

In Singapore, funding opportunities are very much determined by top-down priorities that are based on national economic and strategic considerations and leave little leeway for research without a clear goal. "Even schemes intended to give excellent young scientists a high degree of freedom to pursue their own research tend to go to projects with a very clear use", says Edwards. "To really become a research powerhouse, there must be more curiosity-driven research."

The bulk of basic research in China is funded through the government. Priorities are set as part of the country’s regular five-year plans, while the private sector works with universities on short-term, applied research projects.

Changing attitudes

"The challenge is to reconcile the open environment of research with the way of governing and deciding", says Marmier of Swissnex. "There is a need for a new governance model for funding, education and university governance. This is the innovation that would accelerate the status of China as a world leader in S&T". Edwards feels the problem is less about funding, and more about attitudes. "From conversations with senior people in universities, I would say that attitudes are changing, with a growing acceptance of a need for more bottom-up, ‘blue skies’ research".

Real change would need senior policymakers to be persuaded of the importance of this type of research. Those in Saudi Arabia stress that they are still committed to basic research despite their focus on the industrialisation of research over the next five years. "We know we must invest heavily in this because this is an important component in creating a science culture", says Abdulaziz Al-Swailem, vice president for scientific research support at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), which has been advising the government on the country’s science strategy.

Quantity versus quality

Investing in science is paying off. China doubled its R&D spending between 2009 and 2012, and an OECD report released in 2014 projects that China is set to overtake the US as the world’s biggest science spender by 2019. But while the number of research papers published in China has mushroomed, their quality has failed to keep up and still remains below world averages (see the infographic "The tiger awakens", p. 14). "The new aspect is that now there are schemes in place to really look at excellence and not only quantity of output", says Marmier.

The lack of freedom of scientific research is also creating an environment that may hinder science pursuit and lead to misconduct. Research in China has been plagued by fabrications and plagiarism. An editorial in The Lancet in 2015 blamed this on an academic promotion system that relies heavily on the number of publications. This problem is also felt in Saudi Arabia.

Even Western offshore campuses in emerging economies have sometimes suffered under the censorship of academic freedom. New York University Abu Dhabi has helped to increase research publications in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but the bulk of the research in question is actually conducted at its New York base. In March 2015, the university was subjected to intense scrutiny when a researcher from its New York campus was banned from entering UAE because he was looking into the working and living conditions of migrant labour in the country. These are delicate issues that the government does not want to be discussed.

"Singapore is very different from China in terms of transparency, dealing with fraud, plagiarism and the like", says Artur Ekert, director of the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore. He also stresses that his country offers greater academic freedom than its neighbours. "I am sure there are various research-related ethical issues that Singapore has to deal with but, to my knowledge, they are no different from those in Europe or the US".

Bringing science home

To be sustainable, this growth in science needs manpower and expertise, and it has to be able to attract highly cited international researchers. Graduate student enrolment in China rocketed from 280,000 in 2000 to 1.6 million in 2011 as the country rapidly expanded its education system. China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia now make up the majority of expatriate students studying in the US, with China alone having over 300,000 students there. A scholarship programme in Saudi Arabia has seen hundreds of thousands of students travel for graduate studies overseas in recent years.

Now, the challenge is to have attractive facilities and grants to lure these researchers back home, and also to acquire foreign, high-calibre expertise. In China, "there is a very large talent programme that offers large grants to either returnees or foreign experts interested in research", says Marmier. China and South Korea are now the countries attracting the largest number of researchers from the US, and they are experiencing an overall ‘brain gain’ as a result.

Saudi Arabia is trying to attract highly cited researchers by offering lucrative packages and excellent facilities. "We need to work with advanced research institutes to learn from them", says Al-Swailem. Singapore is also sending talented students to study at the best overseas universities through government scholarships. These come with a requirement for them to return and work in their country for a certain number of years, adds Ekert. The ‘Create’ programme of its National Research Foundation provides a research ecosystem in collaboration with renowned universities such as ETH Zurich, MIT, Technische Universität München, Cambridge University and UC Berkeley.

The real challenge is to convince more young people to pursue science careers and to increase home-grown expertise. "This is a real problem. Despite producing excellent graduates and providing many opportunities to do a PhD, it is remarkably difficult to recruit Singaporean doctoral students", says Edwards. Upon graduation, they prefer to take up secure, well-paid jobs instead of pursuing postgraduate studies for several more years. Locals are often a minority among doctoral students.

In Saudi Arabia, KACST is trying to reach more people and increase their interest in science by translating science texts into Arabic. "We want to create knowledge and make it available for all parts of society", says Al-Swailem. "A large part of the Kingdom is young people, and they are hungry for science. We are learning from our mistakes to continue to build positively".


Mohammed Yahia is a science journalist and the editor of Nature Middle East. He is based in Cairo.


Partnerships with Switzerland

Four Asian countries – China, Japan, South Korea and India – figure among the seven scientific-cooperation priority countries designated by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation. In 2015 the Swiss National Science Foundation approved a new series of joint projects with South Korea as well as Brazil and Russia, and launched a programme with the National Natural Science Foundation of China. "Korea has great potential", says Jean-Luc Barras, head of international cooperation at the SNSF. "We are trying to align bilateral cooperation support opportunities with the needs of researchers".