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The Sun rises on Chinese space science

Jonathan Amos | 22:00 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011

The world is changing, and fast. Take the new report from the Royal Society. It's called Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century.

It examines how the emerging economies, led by China and followed by others such as Brazil and India, are challenging the "old order".

The pre-eminent scientific positions of the US, Western Europe and Japan are now being eroded on every front - in the number of scientific papers published, in citations made, and in patent applications. In terms of pure investment, the emerging economies are also pumping increasing funds into their labs and their science-based industries.

This blog is concerned with space, of course, and all of the above applies very much to this particular field of endeavour. But, as I say, where there is a challenge so there is an opportunity.

Prototype Chinese Moon rover

John Zarnecki (third from right) inspects a prototype Chinese Moon rover in 2007

That's the view certainly of Professor John Zarnecki from the UK's Open University.

John has had an amazing career at the pinnacle of British space science.

He's worked on a diverse group of missions, including Europe's Giotto probe which flew by Comet Halley in 1986, and on the development of Hubble.

He also led the surface science instrument team on Huygens, the European spacecraft that landed on Saturn's moon Titan in 2005. But he's felt the wind of change, also, and is heading to China for several months a year to start working on the Asian giant's space programme.

He's being given a lab, people and money to work on space instrumentation. There's a good chance the products of this work will end up on China's Chang'e programme, which is exploring the Moon.

So far, the Chinese have put two spacecraft in orbit around the lunar body. The future missions Chang'e 3, 4 and 5 will very likely land, rove and finally return rock samples to Earth.

This is not one of those classic "brain drain" stories; rather it's about chasing possibilities. John will still anchor himself in the UK and at the OU. He believes British and Chinese space interests can build a strong new partnership:

"Some people have put their heads in the sand about this, but China is coming. This is the last big project in my career, but what an opportunity to work with the Chinese on developing an instrument or package and sending it to the Moon or Mars!
 
Huygens image of Titan

Huygens made the most distant landing in the Solar System. John Zarnecki's instrument package probed Titan's surface

"They've offered me a visiting professorship at Beihang University, which is a new name for the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. They're strong on technology and very well connected with the Chinese space agency. We've had contacts with them for several years, but I've come to the conclusion that to make real progress then even more personal contact is needed; and so when this professorship came up, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
 
"The OU is encouraging me because, like a lot of UK universities, they recognise that China is the coming force and it's important to engage at all levels, from teaching to research. And whereas in the UK we are under tremendous pressure over resources, in China they're offering me a lab and giving me people.
 
"This year, I will be out there for about three months and then we'll see how it goes. I'm not signed up to a particular space mission, but I hope by being there I will be able to get on some great missions like Chang'e 3, 4 and 5. Here, we're talking about a lunar lander, a lunar rover and lunar sample return over the next three missions.
 
"And the really exciting thing is that when I started going there a few years ago, Mars was just a dream; it would feature in one slide at the end of a presentation from some of their senior people. Now, we get whole presentations on very detailed technical studies. I think the Chang'e 1 and 2 missions - the success of them, technically - have given the Chinese huge confidence that they really can do stuff.
 
"Now, China is very good on the technical side of things, but what they don't have is the 40 years' experience in space science that we have in the UK and Europe. That's what we can bring to them. And, you know, I see this as a win-win: I see this as the OU opening a lab in China, and I want to see Chinese students coming to Britain and British students going to China.
 
"Many of these kids will be the scientific leaders of tomorrow and if I can help bring them through, that will be fantastic."

The UK has done fantastically well in recent years with its space science partnerships with the US. Consider the recent Nasa missions launched to study the Sun - the Stereo spacecraft and the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Britain provided a modest amount of scientific instrumentation and components, and in return got prime access to some cutting-edge data on our star.

It's the sort of access British researchers could never have got any other way because the UK simply does not have the budget to launch these kinds of missions on its own.

It looks increasingly likely that these opportunities will also now present themselves in China and India. Who'll grab opportunities?Chart from Royal Society report

The Royal Society report investigates the emergence of China and others as big scientific players

 

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    It is inevitable that increasing numbers of Western scientists will be lured to countries such as China when they offer large budgets and resources for ambitious research programmes. This can be seen as a consequence of a wider economic trend - "where is the money?"

    The neo-liberal form of free-market capitalism that prevailed in the West over the last 30 years resulted in a concentration of wealth in the hands of a plutocratic elite (bankers etc); the fruits of economic growth and productivity were literally siphoned away to their offshore bank accounts. Hence the lack of money available in these austere post-debt bubble times to mend potholes in the road let alone fund ambitious space programmes.

    In China, a significant proportion of the wealth created by their pursuit of "state-directed capitalism" over the last few decades is being used as an instrument of state policy. One clear policy of the Chinese state is the rapid development of its science and technology capabilities, including in space.

    If one were to be mistrustful of the long-term foreign policy objectives of China, this trend could be cause for concern. However, I go along with the sentiments of Prof Zarnecki in believing that it is more important that research and exploration in space is carried out than being concerned with who carries it out.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    China already lead the world in stem cell research and will soon regain the technological innovation lead it relinquished 200 years ago.

  • Comment number 4.

    The whole world order is changing. While almost all western countries as shown in the graph are having negative growth rates for their contribution to world's total output, countries such as China, Brazil and India are growing fast. Another surprising finding of the report is that the world's fastest growing nation in science and technology is Iran. Surely the government there has implemented a very successful plan since without large scale policies such growth is not possible. As the report notes that when international politics fail, international science takes over. Like wise while we are being continuously fed propaganda against Iran, finally some scientific truth can put things in perspective.

  • Comment number 5.

    4. At 10:39am on 29th Mar 2011, Superalien3 wrote:

    "...Another surprising finding of the report is that the world's fastest growing nation in science and technology is Iran."

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    It's important to have that information in context though. As an example, suppose I start a religion, and manage to convert one person in a year so that there are now two of us, I guess I'd be the fastest growing religion on the planet, having grown 100% in a year. In this case 'fastest growing' doesn't really mean very much. I'm not saying this is the case for Irans scientific achievements, but the context is important.

  • Comment number 6.

    Is that graph a little misleading, though? It talks about the growth rate in citations decling. A more meaningful graph would be the actual number of citations. If the US starts off with 100 times the number of citations as China in 1996, it doesnt take a large growth rate for it to maintain a substantial lead. And likewise, if China had very few actual citations in 1996, it wouldnt take a great many additional citations to show a large growth rate.

  • Comment number 7.

    Unsurprising. If your country makes money from exports and loaning other countries money too, for war and banking casino activity - it's the same old, same old.

    Does anyone remember in the last decade that China and Russia went to war? Nope, they didn't then, and don't need to now either. Soft power - by China and Russia - think about it - does anyone get the point yet?

  • Comment number 8.

    Citation rates and papers are not necessarily a good measure of long-term scientific utility.

  • Comment number 9.

    Why do articles such as this (and there have been a number of them in various media reports) never even mention that China remains a tightly controlled dictatorship? Sure, you can have access to research money and opportunities in China--but only if you "behave" (better not show any sympathies for the Tibetans, the practitioners of Falun Gong, those who advocate an independent Taiwan, or who oppose government-sanctioned projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, etc., etc.). The scientists who go to China will not be free to speak their minds--but why does this only bother them while they're in the west (as so many always complain about supposed government "censorship" here, which usually just means they didn't get the public funding they wanted)?

  • Comment number 10.

    The chinese look like they keep copying american technologies.The chinese spy on the usa all the time and are reported to have all usa nuclear weapons designs.The Wheels of this rover look very much like the usa`s mars rover.
    Innovation is important and like the japanese found when it sent its space probe to venus,getting something in orbit or on the ground is very different.You need more than machines.
    Its interesting to note,chinese companies have been buying usa firms.Not to keep jobs in america but to get hold of valuble patents.

  • Comment number 11.

    I response to 'ToughChoices': While scientists are entitled to their humanitarian opinions as much as the next person; I wouldn't mind betting your average Space Scientist, in China or elsewhere, is far more concerned about the life's work they are devoted to, rather than diverting their attentions to political issues. Not everyone in this world has time to fret about their leadership - most just get on with the job at hand.

  • Comment number 12.

    3, it was more like over 400 years ago, likewise the other way, China is rising, however not as fast as you seem to think.
    Inventing stuff of your own - in a major way - will be the spur. Not saying China isn't now just starting to - a bit - however it is starting from a low base.

    Economist Will Hutton - no friend of the Anglo-Saxon capitalist system that caused the great crash (again!) reckons there is less to China's breakneck growth - in terms of innovation and a sound long term footing - than meets the eye.
    He was one of few who warned prior to the latest great crash of how unsustainable, unstable the system was.

    In terms of space, I'll start to be impressed with China when it's builds a manned spacecraft that is NOT a copy of Soyuz, when they have successful planetary probes and have a properly commercial rival to Ariane.


  • Comment number 13.

    I was a senior research scientist at Cambridge University - worked on cancer drug discovery for nearly 10 years and I am now translocating to China to finalise my potency testing in animals (and hopefully apply for patents in China if the outcomes are encouraging). Working on drug development in the UK is a nightmare - the paper work for transgenic mice/animal licence is horrendous - my contract with Cambridge University was typical of that of the "rolling 2 years" (i.e. short but renewable, depending on available funding) and yet the process of getting a licence from the Home Office takes 1 year on average. Recently I was offered a good academic position in China (better salary than Cambridge, 3 years TAX FREE plus annual travel allowance). Why stay in the UK when China offers me a much better career prospect?
    If my cancer drugs do turn out to be effective, the patents would certainly belong to the Chinese despite all the ground work being done in Cambridge. Sorry, that's how scientists in the UK are being treated, what a shame.

  • Comment number 14.

    5. prophet_samuel wrote:

    " It's important to have that information in context though. As an example, suppose I start a religion, and manage to convert one person in a year so that there are now two of us, I guess I'd be the fastest growing religion on the planet, having grown 100% in a year. In this case 'fastest growing' doesn't really mean very much. I'm not saying this is the case for Irans scientific achievements, but the context is important."

    Again it goes to prove my point how much propaganda is going against Iran. You have proven that you know nothing about the country. Last year in 2009, Iran's contribution to world science and technology out put was more than 1.2%. A substantial sum. More than Belgium or Norway. So your argument is ignorant of the facts out there. I advise you to educate yourself.

  • Comment number 15.

    #8>Citation rates and papers are not necessarily a good measure of long-term scientific utility.

    True but building high tech infrastructure that work is irrefutable proof of scientific utility. China has/had build thousands of km of high speed railway that works and is on time !! When will Britain get it's *FIRST* own high speed railway (Eurostar doesn't count since it's mostly French) ??

  • Comment number 16.

    #12>In terms of space, I'll start to be impressed with China when it's builds a manned spacecraft that is NOT a copy of Soyuz, when they have successful planetary probes and have a properly commercial rival to Ariane.

    The first US space rockets were a *DIRECT* rip-off of the Nazi ones, especially when they "captured" Werner von Braun, the German rocket scientist !! Everyone rips off everyone else's inventions !!

  • Comment number 17.

    14. At 19:14pm on 29th Mar 2011, Superalien3 wrote:
    5. prophet_samuel wrote:

    " It's important to have that information in context though. As an example, suppose I start a religion, and manage to convert one person in a year so that there are now two of us, I guess I'd be the fastest growing religion on the planet, having grown 100% in a year. In this case 'fastest growing' doesn't really mean very much. I'm not saying this is the case for Irans scientific achievements, but the context is important."

    Again it goes to prove my point how much propaganda is going against Iran. You have proven that you know nothing about the country. Last year in 2009, Iran's contribution to world science and technology out put was more than 1.2%. A substantial sum. More than Belgium or Norway. So your argument is ignorant of the facts out there. I advise you to educate yourself.

    -----------------------------------

    Wow, I was just trying to make a general point. Your response by comparison is quite aggressive. I did try to say that I wasn't making any specific reference to Iranian scientific accomplishments, but perhaps you missed that part. Thank you for your suggestion that I educate myself. I'm pleased to say I've been lucky enough to have a well balanced education from some good teachers.

  • Comment number 18.

    "True but building high tech infrastructure that work is irrefutable proof of scientific utility. China has/had build thousands of km of high speed railway that works and is on time !! When will Britain get it's *FIRST* own high speed railway (Eurostar doesn't count since it's mostly French) ?? "

    ==============================================================

    It's pretty easy for the Chinese to build this massive infrastructre.... when they can just simply evict anyone in the way, and 're-locate' them to some apartment block (if your lucky) 100 miles away.

    In the UK we have a thing called laws and planning permission, even compulsary purchase orders see the participants receiving heavy pay-offs.

    In China it's just a case of... 'we are building a dam/road through your house, clear off or go to jail'. They also don't care about any protected land for wildlife, so just build straight through that as well (if they even have any protected reserves).

    Put together with the massive open country they have which has nothing there to worry about disturbing, compared with our limited space and already developed areas and you can see why China is miles ahead.

  • Comment number 19.

    It appears that most western counties (especially US ans UK) are putting too much focus on management, financial and business consultancy services over the past 20 to 30 years. The pay and career prospects in these areas are more superior than the science arena. No doubt the western countries are falling behind their eastern counterparts.

  • Comment number 20.

    16, while Von Braun and his team were important to the US Space Program, the Saturn V was a very long way from the V-2. (Some of which impacted not far from where I type this).
    But there's more than that to it, the actual spacecraft atop the rockets, the Chinese Long March rockets owe little or nothing to Russian rockets but the actual spacecraft is essentially a Soyuz copy.

  • Comment number 21.

    There is a difference between mere citations and citations in internationally recognised journals. If Chinese scientists are publishing in Chinese journals that are only read by Chinese readers who reference them in other Chinese journals, then citations of those papers have little value, no matter how many of them there are. The numbers are merely a reflection of a large Chinese population, not necessarily good science.

  • Comment number 22.

    #21 labsnark, can numbers of papers be any indication of quality of research here or in the US either? I know it isn't, the whole system is very very sick. In truth its become very much an old boys network, the numbers of papers and journals shooting up but at the same time the pace of actual advancement has slowed to a crawl.

    The problem is that the publications system has become the basis of the whole career structure and pay ladder of institutional science. Publishing papers to advance your career (and your university), its more about the number of papers than whats in them. Its a gravy train I first became aware of in the mid nineties thanks as usual to New Scientist. - It leads to a vast waste of money and a vast replication of effort, to extreme caution in publishing by a vast number of mostly not very talented people. Keeping them in jobs and security in comfy offices in our universities. Science after all today is about teaching, its not about discovery or innovation or questioning of orthodoxy.
    I did a calculation when I first discovered all this and back in 95 the amount of fat in the system in the UK alone added to up-to 5 billion a year - enough to fund something like NASA. Yes we need science and engineering graduates but the system that produces them is poor and wasteful - more a sausage factory than a quality education.
    [oh dear - sorry - end rant :) ]

  • Comment number 23.

    I am glad we have been holding our own, just hope certain in the Government do not see this as a reason to cut back.

    The biggest surprise is how much Iran has put into Science and Technology and how they put to shame some of the Western democracies, Netherlands as someone pointed out in this blog.

    An I think given there rise academic arena and skills they seem to some people in certain circles may be need to take Iran a bit more seriously when they say they have developed there own stealth aircraft or a new missile and any other weapons developement.

    As to China rise, well the Americans do not like to be beaten to hopefully China will kick them up the arse and we can have a other space Race, may be one to Mars.

  • Comment number 24.

    No. 22 Robert Lucien
    "The problem is that the publications system has become the basis of the whole career structure and pay ladder of institutional science"

    Unfortunately whether we like it or not that is the way it is. In field of Medicine we call it "Publish OR Perish". One research work is spliced in to half a dozen sometimes even more publications. The career progression is direclty proportional to publications. Sometimes the applied aspect of research work is completely lost.
    Nonetheless keeping political issue aside Chinese have demonstrated their engineering feat by some of the mega projects. Also it has lot to do with growth and prosperity. e.g. in Victorian England any whimsical or far fetched idea would also find some or the other funding for the projects. We in Britain had that phase now perhaps it is the turn of these developing and newly prospering nations.

  • Comment number 25.

    Capitalism without competition is people punishment by the Grady.
    If only one ideology dominating the world is like only one supermarket in the city.
    They charge whatever they want.
    *People worldwide will benefit by a peaceful competition between ideologies.
    --
    To be or not to be afraid by China?
    History teaches that China don't seek for world domination.
    800 years ago China science and technical knowhow was 700 years advance compared to the Europe.
    They have the power and could easily conquer the world. By they didn't.
    ---
    Brake trough science is like a bird.
    It reaches far away only in freedom.
    (For the Chinese and other totalitarians)

  • Comment number 26.

    Space exploration and satellite design is now greatly depend upon the advancements in the micro-electronic technology. I think MEMS is a very promising technology in electronics for space applications.
    Reference: http://www.ipool.tk/microelectronics/why-mems/

  • Comment number 27.

    Guys - It's all about population. Nearly two-thirds of the world's people live in China and India, so all things being equal, we'd expect two-thirds of the scientists to live and publish there too.

    I'd like to see the stats on citations per capita. I'd bet the US, Europe and Japan would still have a healthy lead.

    And Robert Lucien - it's not just about raw numbers of papers published or citations, it's about where they get published and who cites them where. It's called impact factor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_factor

    You've got to ask what the Royal Society's motivation in presenting the stats this way might be. Anyone? Anyone?

    Oh and corum-populo-2010 - it's not just a question of priorities either: China's military budget has been growing pretty steadily over the past decade: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_budget_of_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China

    And Russia has been fighting a bitter conflict in Chechnya for the best part of 10 years and went to war with Georgia in 2008.

    The fact is they have more cash to splash than we do.

  • Comment number 28.

    As a citizen of a Latin American country, I think It could be a very interesting report if you make some comments about the scientific development in every of the BRIC economies. Thanks.

  • Comment number 29.

    @SONICBOOMER

    But there's more than that to it, the actual spacecraft atop the rockets, the Chinese Long March rockets owe little or nothing to Russian rockets but the actual spacecraft is essentially a Soyuz copy.

    Shenzhou is not a Soyuz copy. It is significantly larger and has more power. There is a different design to the solar arrays, and the propulsion system has a very different internal layout.

    The US has on several occasions designed spacecraft (early persions of Apollo and Orion) that had essentially similar configurations to Soyuz. It is a very good spacecraft configuration which is why it keeps reoccuring.
    l

  • Comment number 30.

    @13. As someone who has visited Chinese universities in an official capacity all can say is good luck; you will need it. If you are for real, once you are landed and reality bits I think that you will soon have to pull your head out of where the sun doesn’t shine. As for your problems with the animal license, ethics is a bitch isnt it, lol

  • Comment number 31.

    With the US and UK trashing their economy going after their social safety net and education system and worker rights. They have also been attacking their science infrastructure in the name of saving money so they can waste it on the rich. China,Russia,India and Brazil have been moving ahead with their space and other science programs. Until the US and UK stop their stupid war on their middle class and poor with no though for the future they will continue to fall behind and join other past societies in the dust bin of history the US dropped the ball after Apollo and nickel and dime their manned space program to death by throwing their money away in stupid endless wars and cutting taxes like crazy they are hell bent on self destruction to serve their ideological fantasies so live in their caves like the savages they are showing what narcissistic children they are.

  • Comment number 32.

    China has 1.4 billion people or about 20% of the world's population. It is the manufacturing center for much of the world's manufactured goods. It is rapidly evolving in political, economic, and technical ways. Do they have problems? Of course. Some are unique to them. I understand they may have some severe problems come 2013, but I believe they see a space program as a way to continue their technological development in other areas, and they are capable of supporting an aggressive space program because of their sheer size. I don't think that the US population has the burning desire that the Chinese government has at the moment to advance in space technology. And that may be why I think a non-democracy might advance faster and further until Americans realize the need for it. So far, China has been borrowing or stealing technology, but that may change when they catch up.

  • Comment number 33.

    The USA seems to be more focussed on space weapons technology than on peaceful space technology. DNA specific lasers are under development that will give us nowhere to hide. The next truly global crisis may occur when they inevitably lose their ironfisted grip on the world's economy.

  • Comment number 34.

    The next man to walk on the moon will be Chinese. I have been saying this since shortly after Shenzhou 5

  • Comment number 35.

    I am replying to pahane who wrote 01:24am 5th Apr 2011,

    He wrote that China and India has 60% of the world's populaton which is grossly untrue.

    The laste China census confirmed the population is very close to 1.4 Billion

    India has about 1.1 Billion not accurate but definitely below China.

    The world population is more than 6 Billion

    2.5 Billion is nearer to 40% than 60&

    Yes, on a per capita basis, these two countries are way below other developed economies in citation submissions, but they are on an exponential climb,

    That is what they are trying to suggest Sir

 

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