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Calling China

If you have time to read just one policy tome this week, choose China’s Absorptive State, published this week by Nesta, says an editorial in Research Fortnight

This week a bevy of senior UK politicians, business leaders and academics are on a tour of China. The Whitehall spin machine is keen that we take notice. Daily announcements gush forth with news of visa restrictions being lowered in return for more Chinese investment in the UK.

To coincide with the visit, innovation agency Nesta has published what is perhaps the most important policy document about China’s knowledge ambitions to come out for at least six years—indeed, its authors include many from the same team that produced the well-received analysis in 2007 appropriately called China: The next science superpower?

The latest report, China’s Absorptive State, spells out how the next knowledge power, like the many that came before it, has absorbed knowledge and skills from around the world. It describes how China has moved onto the next level: innovating on its own terms, or “innovation with Chinese characteristics” as it has come to be known.

The report includes what amounts to the premier league of China’s international research coauthors, and the good news here is that the UK has leapfrogged Japan into second place, behind the United States. Australia looks likely to overtake the UK, though, as its researcher partnerships with China are growing at a faster rate.

China’s Absorptive State shows that in a few fields—notably engineering, computer science and the plant and animal sciences—about 8 per cent of the UK’s research base is involved with colleagues in China. The authors rightly ask whether a continued increase at the same rate will be sustainable for the UK’s number of academics, which is small compared with China’s.

Other, less applied fields, including physics and the social sciences, are crying out for more UK-China partnerships. Research councils please take note: there is clearly an opportunity for the right project here, perhaps in partnership with the British Council and China’s ever expanding network of Confucius centres.

That the UK and China have less to discuss outside mass tourism, big money and high technology is paradoxical, if not a little tragic. For many years the name of one British historian in particular reverberated throughout Chinese academia and in many corridors of power. Joseph Needham’s epic 24-part Science and Civilisation in China didn’t just introduce China’s scientific exploits to English-speaking audiences; it helped many of China’s own policymakers and intellectuals from the 20th century to reconnect with their past.

In an age when research is ever more complex, Needham persisted obsessively with just one big question, now known as the Needham Question. Why did China fall back in technology and learning, and why did this coincide with the emergence of western nations as scientific and military powers? China’s present-day leadership, its entrepreneurs and its researchers are beginning to answer Needham’s question.

If you have time to read just one policy tome this week, choose China’s Absorptive State. Among other things, it is a timely how-to lesson: How post-imperial states don’t always need to decline.