BBC News

UK researchers tap into China's scientific powerhouse

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightSigrid Gombert/CULTURA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The UK government is to outline its plans to strengthen collaborative research between Britain and China.

The Science Minister, Jo Johnson, will give details while opening a joint UK-Chinese plant research centre just outside Shanghai.

Scientists at the centre will investigate new ways of growing crops to feed an expanding global population.

The centre is the latest effort by the UK to tap into the rapid growth in scientific investment by China.

Chinese research has grown rapidly in the past 20 years. Spending on R&D is now over 40 times what it was in 1995, amounting to £150bn in 2015 - just over 2% of the country's economic production (GDP).

That compares with the UK government's spending on R&D of £8.4bn, which is just under 0.5% of Britain's GDP.

Despite this spending mismatch, the quality of UK research is still among the highest in the world. In order to maintain Britain's leading status, research leaders have decided that it is important to leverage our science spending with the emerging new science superpower.

Spending spree

At current growth rates, China is forecast to overtake the US to become the world's largest funder of R&D in 2022.

It is a science spending spree that the UK is ideally placed to tap into, according to Mr Johnson, who is in Shanghai with 150 scientists who are on a drive to strengthen links between British and Chinese researchers.

"Over the past 20 years, China has significantly increased investment in science and when UK and Chinese scientists work together, the results are proven to have more impact than when each country works alone. Frankly, it's obvious that we should continue exploiting our shared success," he said.

image copyrightJIC
image captionChinese scientists are working with researchers in the UK to assess the medicinal properties of plants

Collaboration between the two countries has grown steadily in recent years, particularly in areas of common interest, such as food security, energy and antimicrobial research. According to Prof Jane Elliott, who is the chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), collaboration between the UK and China is a marriage made in heaven.

"The UK really does punch above its weight in science and research so we are seen as the partner of choice," she said.

"One of the challenges for China is its aging population and they have a demographic puzzle as a result of having had their one child policy, so they are very keen to work out how to sustain and care for their aging population.

"Their problem is on a different scale from the UK but we also face similar challenges and so it's good to be able to collaborate on those sorts of topics."

Agricultural research is an important area of collaboration between China and Britain. As China has modernised its agricultural systems to increase productivity, its scientists have also been investigating ways of reducing the consequent CO2 emissions.

The UK-China Centre for Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture has brought Chinese universities together with one of Britain's leading agricultural research centres, Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, to form a scientific cooperative to find environmentally friendlier approaches.

Prof Melanie Welham, who is the CEO of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), said international collaboration with China was crucial:

"A lot of challenges that our researchers are addressing are global challenges. The UK leads the world in bioscience and that puts us in a really strong position to form international collaborations and partnerships," she told BBC News.

As China's vast energy sector continues to rely on coal, the need has grown for improved carbon capture technology to reduce CO2 emissions. A collaboration between Edinburgh University and North China Electric Power University led to a new process that reduced the energy needed for CO2 capture by up to 30%.

The UK-China Space Science and Technology Programme has brought together a UK institution, RAL Space, with China's Beihang University of Aeronautics & Astronautics, allowing researchers, businesses and agencies to collaborate in monitoring the Earth by satellite to monitor agriculture and the effects of climate change.

The new plant research centre just outside Shanghai is the latest UK effort to tap into the rapid growth in Chinese scientific expertise

Researchers at the Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Science will investigate ways of improving crop yields, decreasing the threat from pests and diseases and reducing the need for artificial fertiliser. They will also study ways of harnessing the benefits of Chinese medicine.

Promising partnership?

The centre will work closely with the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich. Its director, Prof Dale Sanders, said that the collaboration would build on historic ties.

"The partnership dates back to the 1980s when the JIC was among the first UK institutes to welcome Chinese researchers working abroad," he said.

"Today we are seeing our vision of a world class UK/China collaboration in plant and microbial sciences become a reality and I have no doubt that the excellent, world leading science delivered by this centre will make a huge impact on the big global challenges relating to food security and human health."

As well as the opening of the new plant science centre, the government announced a plan by the Open University and the CAS Centre for Excellence in Advanced Materials in Dongguan, Guangdong, to explore the development of a joint engineering centre with facilities in the UK and China and discussions to develop further collaborations in space science in the fields of remote sensing and satellite technology.

China has a long history of development work in Africa. In recent years, the UK has also made development research a priority, devoting more than £1.5bn to it over the next five years, and so this is another potential area of collaboration.

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