China Scary!

A somewhat misleadingly titled article from the BBC, the headline of which seems made for the China Threat crowd:

China ‘to overtake US on science’ in two years

The article goes on to explain that the subversion of American scientific supremacy does not mean that satellites aiming Chinese laser-beams will soon be orbiting the western hemisphere (if they are not already), but rather that a country of 1.3 billion will soon be publishing more scientific papers than a country with 5-fold fewer people. Oddly, after scaring us with the bogeyman of Chinese scientific paper output, the article goes on to note that it might not be such a big deal.

However the report points out that a growing volume of research publications does not necessarily mean in increase in quality.

One key indicator of the value of any research is the number of times it is quoted by other scientists in their work.

Although China has risen in the “citation” rankings, its performance on this measure lags behind its investment and publication rate.

“It will take some time for the absolute output of emerging nations to challenge the rate at which this research is referenced by the international scientific community.”

I wonder. I would imagine that much cross-citation is a function of time. One’s research must be given time to breathe before its scent can waft through the waiting nostrils of the broader scientific community, so we may only have to wait a few years till the huge volume of Chinese research starts along a more fertile path of cross-citation. That said, I think there is often a missed point in all this talk of an scientific arms race with the Chinese.

The topic of innovation in China is one that’s been much debated over the last couple of years almost unfailingly leading to the conclusion that while true that China is spending loads on it, they are more derivative than creative and require a wholesale upheaval of society or the educational system, or both. What I feel is missing, however, is the recognition that for the progress of science and for the progress of society, marginal change is often better than revolutionary change.




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