Commentary RESEARCH

Why Western universities are coming to China for R&D


2019-09-27 04:29

Rachana Gupta

In the capital city of eastern China's Jiangsu province, the Cambridge University-Nanjing Center of Technology and Innovation was recently established – a result of joint cooperation between Cambridge and the municipal government of Nanjing. Both parties signed an agreement in March of last year to open the center with the ambition of creating an R&D base to build a 21st-century city equipped with integrated IT, healthcare and building management. 

The Cambridge-Nanjing center is situated in the recently inaugurated Jiangsu pilot free trade zone, and will work hand-in-hand with related industries, the Chinese government and research universities. Its goal is to enable a sustainable lifestyle by supporting health and well-being and promoting efficient energy use through its academic and entrepreneurial activities. But this center is far from being the first or only of its kind. 

Several other universities have also opened R&D facilities in China in recent years, including Oxford University, Stanford University, the University of California, Imperial College London, the National University of Singapore, and the Australian National University. Oxford University established its multidisciplinary Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research in November of last year. 

So what are the fundamental reasons for this rise in the number of premier educational institutions choosing to establish their R&D centers and branches in China?  

First and foremost is China's expanding commitment to using scientific research and innovation to drive high-quality growth. This commitment is reflected in the increasing percentage of China's GDP spent annually on research and development. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), China spent a mere 0.72% of its GDP on R&D in the year 1991, but since that time has gradually increased its yearly expenditure, with a vow to reach R&D spending of 2.5% of GDP by 2020, as set forth in the nation's 13th five-year plan (2015-2020). 

In other words, according to a report released by National Bureau of Statistics earlier last month, the country spent 1.97 trillion yuan (almost $278 billion), or about 2.19% of its GDP, on research and development last year. The amount is 0.04% higher than the total spending in 2017. As a result, the number of scientific publications released by Chinese researchers in 2016 surpassed that of U.S. and EU scientists. 

Secondly, government's policies to attract top foreign talent, such as the Thousand Talent Plan, have boosted the number of researchers coming to China to join government-funded institutions. Under this plan, the country provides required resources, relaxes visa policies and gives a free hand to researchers as a way of facilitating scientific breakthroughs and high-tech innovation.

Thirdly, the rapid economic growth and increase in the per capita income of Chinese people has led to higher demand for international education in the country. According to the data released by the Ministry of Education in March of this year, the number of Chinese students studying abroad reached 662,100 in 2018, which is 8.83% higher than the 2017 figure. To cater to this rapidly growing demand, several international universities are setting up campuses and research centers in China. Renowned U.S. universities such as NYU, Duke, and UC-Berkeley have already established satellite campuses in Shanghai, Kunshan, and Shenzhen in association with Chinese universities, while premiere universities such as Oxford, Stanford, and several others have built their own R&D centers in the country. 

Lastly, the thriving high-tech manufacturing environment in China allows scholars and scientists to experiment freely and bring practical solutions to the expanding Chinese market. Notably, Chinese megacities such as Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin have already integrated innovative technologies into their manufacturing and service ecosystems, which include strong networks of supply chains, experienced engineers and advanced logistics and infrastructure. 

What's more, Chinese tech giants such as Huawei, Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, DJI, and BYD are helping to build a start-up friendly ecosystem through mentoring and investment of resources. Several start-ups, especially in the areas of big data, AI, and internet technologies, including UBTech, Yeefang, Prynt, and iCarbonX, have immensely benefited from this ecosystem. 

In short, it is clear that China, with its positive climate for innovation, fast-growing demand, and government commitment to supportive policies, provides considerable impetus and leeway to researchers to freely experiment in their respective fields. Additionally, the establishment of R&D centers by some of the world's top universities could be a marriage made in heaven, as these institutions will be helped by access to China's brightest students and favorable policy, while the nation will in turn be helped by the impact of reputable research-based education, which will further boost its own technological advancement. Moreover, such cooperation may open even wider the doors of international partnerships, which promise to genuinely benefit both sides in the future. 

Rachana Gupta is an active blogger, poet and freenlance content writer. She is also the author of the book "To The Horizon We Indeed Sail".



2019-09-27 12:28
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