Chinese ambitions in nanotechnology

Those who follow news of Chinese involvement with nanotechnology will be aware that the nation’s researchers are very active in this field. What there has not been, until now, is a quantitative understanding of exactly how much R&D investment there is in China.

Step forward the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which, in its Science Technology and Industry Outlook 2006, has given us both numbers and perspective. There is some dispute over the figures for China, as these depend strongly on assumed growth rates and the purchasing power of the Yuan, but strong growth there has been in recent years.

In its recently published report, the OECD forecast that China will have spent more on R&D than Japan in 2006, putting the country in third place – after the US and EU – in terms of total investment. China’s investment in R&D as a whole has risen from 0.6 to 1.3% of GDP in the last decade, and its aim is to reach 2.5% by 2020. In comparison, European expenditures have remained fairly static, and the situation in the US is little better.

So is China poised to become a science and technology superpower, or are the reports as hyperbolic as a ballistic missile trajectory? This will be the subject of a seminar to be hosted in February by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington DC, and titled “Nanotechnology in China: ambitions and realities”.

How can and should other countries respond to developments in Chinese science and technology development?

One of the speakers at the Washington meeting will be Denis Simon of the Levin Institute at the State University of New York. Simon outlines a common concern: ‘One of the reasons why there continue to be security concerns about the rise of China’s technological capabilities is because of the lack of transparency in the Chinese system, and the difficulty that observers of the Chinese system have in understanding Chinese motivations and behaviour.’

For example, the recent downing of an old weather satellite with a ballistic missile was not preceded with any kind of discussion or warning, and the Chinese authorities only divulged details several days after the fact. ‘This left many foreigners extremely surprised and also nervous, because they wondered why China used such a weapon, and what message it was trying to deliver,’ says Simon.

Most media references these days to the Chinese economy include reference to the “Asian Tiger”. This is undoubtedly a powerful metaphor, but the question is whether it reflects the reality on the ground. China may be looking to compete with the west, but its R&D system suffers from a broad array of problems, according to experts such as Simon. The country may have come a long way in the last 10–15 years, but it still has a way to go before it can be considered truly innovative.

Simon asks: ‘Is there a real culture of creativity being developed in China? Is the type of technological entrepreneurship and risk taking that we see in Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle in the US starting to appear in China?’

Possibly, if one considers the many western-educated Chinese scientists and engineers who have either returned home to work, or split their time between the mother country and elsewhere, facilitating and expanding cross-border cooperation and collaboration.

‘I am not worried about Chinese increased technology spending or R&D efforts as long as we in the US keep supporting education and innovation,’ says Simon. ‘I see it as in the interests of the US and Europe to engage in more extensive cooperation with China, so that we can leverage Chinese capabilities to support research that will benefit all of mankind.’

Facts and figures:

R&D investment (billion €) in 2006, based on OECD forecast

United States 192
European Union 151
China 79
Japan 75

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies:

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Launched in 2005, the project is dedicated to furthering public engagement with nanotechnology, and helping business, government and the public assess and manage any health and environmental consequences arising from the technology.

Article first published in Nanomaterials News.