Issue: 2008: Vol. 7, No. 1, Commentary

China’s Science: The American Connection

Article Author(s)

Mary Brown Bullock

Avatar photo
Dr. Mary Brown Bullock is president emerita of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia and Founding Vice Chancellor of Duke Kunshan University. She serves on the advisory board of the China Research Center. 
Newsletter Signup
Subscription Form

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

China's Science: The American ConnectionMy introduction to Chinese scientists was at Dulles Airport in April 1974, two years after President Nixon’s historic visit. My assignment – actually my very first job — was to escort Chinese seismologists around the United States for a month, one of the first scientific exchanges between the two previously estranged nations.

The delegation had traveled by way of Moscow and was clearly exhausted when they landed: I found the ten men totally uncommunicative. We traveled by bus in near silence to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington where I had arranged a welcoming dinner. The elegant service was interminably slow and I thought the dinner would never end. When the waitress asked us if we would have dessert, I responded – no – everyone is tired and needs a rest. Whereupon the sixty-five year old delegation head, Gu Gongxu, suddenly came alive. In perfect English he called the waitress back to the table: “We’ll all have pie, apple pie, apple pie a la mode – I’ve waited twenty-five years for a piece of American apple pie.” The ice was broken!

Professor Gu was one of several thousand Chinese students who had studied in the United States before l949, returned to China and, after suffering for their American training in Mao’s China, led in re-connecting American and Chinese science in the l970s and l980s. When he returned to Cal Tech and the Colorado School of Mines Gu was received as a distinguished alumnus. His visit paved the way for the USGS to establish seismological monitoring stations in China which provide real time information about movements in the earth’s crust.

Today, more than thirty years after Gu’s visit, China’s science and technology are driving its economic modernization: it is a developing country with Nobel aspirations. The Chinese people are acutely aware that China’s science led the world until about the l8th century: Chinese invented paper, gunpowder, moveable type and accurately predicted Haley’s comet – all hundreds of years before the West. For the last 150 years all of China’s leaders have aspired to regain their rightful intellectual place in the world.

After the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping recognized that China needed to both train scientists and engineers abroad. Since l979 more than 700,000 students and visiting scholars have studied in the West, more than a third in the United States.While many of the younger scientists have yet to return to China, most of the visiting scholars have done so. Today this western educated group is leading China’s scientific development: 81% of the members of the Chinese Academy of Science and 54% of the members of the Chinese Academy of Engineering Sciences studied abroad.

Information, space and environmental science are among China’s top priorities. It has become a global leader in nanotechnology and stem-cell research. A new system of national laboratories includes major global diseases and plant-breeding. China’s political leaders are calling for indigenous innovation and technology that leap-frogs previous applications. China’s investment in research and higher education has increased at a higher rate than its 10% economic growth: its R&D spending now ranks #3, behind the United States and Japan.

China’s science and technology is not yet a powerhouse, but American universities and corporations believe that within a quarter of a century it will be. Accordingly, collaboration with Chinese scientists and investments in jointly operated research facilities has been accelerating. Let’s look at two aspects of this American connection: training scientists and research collaboration.

We are all aware that foreign-born American scientists and engineers play a critical role in U.S. science: 35% of our doctoral level scientists and engineers are foreign born, the largest percentage having originally come from China. The ARCS program is playing an important role in training more American-born scientists and engineers.

As in the past, the United States is the destination of choice for promising young Chinese scientists and engineers. In l986 199 Chinese received their American Ph.D.’s in science and engineering. Since l996 the number has averaged 3,000, about 11% of the total. Unlike the older visiting scholars, these younger scientists have been very slow to return to China: 90% of the students who received their doctorate in l998 were still in the United States in 2003, five years later.

Asked about this apparent brain drain, the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reflected the globalization of science when he responded: “I will be satisfied if they make a scientific contribution to the country that trained them, to their home country, and to the world.” If China’s economic and intellectual climate continues to improve, the number returning will grow. They will take with them both up-to-date scientific knowledge and laboratory experience but also the cultural and intellectual norms of American science. The culture of American science is already having a significant influence in China: China’s National Natural Science Foundation is modeled after NSF, and has introduced peer-reviewed funding and human-subject research guidelines.

Collaborative research with China – for both industry and academia – has become a booming business. Today there are over 1,000 foreign-funded R&D centers in China, compared to less than 200 in India. A global firm, whether IBM, Intel, Microsoft, or GE must have an R&D center in China: Motorola has l6! Likewise universities are scrambling to set up collaborative research labs in China. Yale University is probably the leader: it has seventeen departments with partnerships with 45 Chinese institutions in l6 provinces and 26 study sites all over China.

Georgia Tech, an ARCS university here in Atlanta, was one of the earliest American universities to establish collaborative programs with China. President Joseph Petit led the first American engineering education delegation to China in the mid-l970s, and by the early l980s Georgia Tech was providing training opportunities in management and engineering for Chinese students. Today it has a strong collaborative program with Shanghai’s Jiaotung University, one of China’s leading engineering schools, offering joint MA degrees in x asnd x, as well as summer and semester programs for Georgia Tech programs in China. Georgia Tech also has a collaborative research program in nanotechnology with Beijing University.

Collaborative research also extends to US Government science agencies: currently there are 30 bi-laterals in fields ranging from cancer epidemiology to clean energy to nanotechnology and genomics.

This rapid growth in scientific connections between the two countries raises important questions. Why have so many American institutions made such a huge investment in joint scientific projects with China? Why should we be collaborating with a potential competitor?

Universities and corporations give the same answer: American science and technology will benefit from collaboration with China’s rapidly developing scientific community. In explaining Yale’s China concentration, President Richard Levin cites China’s large size, its significant role on the world stage, its rapidly growing economy, and the Chinese government’s investment in top universities. In a Washington Post editorial Harvard’s Ezra Vogel writes that American universities see in China “an intellectual vitality that may be as broad and deep as the Western Renaissance.” Both Levin and Vogel emphasize that scientific collaboration leads to a greater intellectual openness in China’s academic community. Corporations are, of course, more concerned with the bottom line: they find in China a rich source of inexpensive human talent. They also believe that to compete successfully they must have a strong R&D presence in China.

The U.S. government takes a somewhat different position. Aware of both the commercial advantages but also the challenge of strategic competitiveness it maintains tough export controls on dual-use technology.

America’s scientific relationship with China will be both challenging and promising in the years ahead. Whether the problem is global health or climate change or the exploitation of space China will be a major player.

During my last trip to China in October I attended a luncheon with the president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Director of NIH’s Fogarty International Center. I learned that there are 500 Chinese interns at NIH but relatively few American biomedical scientists studying in China. The purpose of the lunch was to open new opportunities for young biomedical scientists in both countries to work with each other.

And so, my message to the young ARC scientists whom we have honored today is: take advantage of any opportunity to travel to China as a young scientist. You will keep pace with global science and you will be ready, in an informed way, to influence US science policy toward China. With luck you will also forge professional friendships that last for decades, and that may, like those of Professor Gu Gongxu, ultimately help both nations transcend political differences and contribute to world peace.