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Ethics and science in China

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The investigative report Science published the last week documented something has been known for a long time: in China there is a thriving trading of scientific articles. Some researchers are even willing to pay 10,000 dollars for putting their names on articles that will be published on peer-reviewed international journals. There are proper agencies that manage this kind of trading. Besides, as stated on New Scientist by the free-lance scientific journalist Shi-min Fang – winner in 2012 of the Maddox Prize - plagiarism and exaggerating academic qualifications are both very common among Chinese researchers.

In other words, the Country of the Dragon does not shine for scientific integrity. The situation is serious, since China is the emerging scientific power. It is the first country worldwide for number of researchers (1.5 million). The second one, after the United States, both for absolute investments in research and development (R&D) and for number of published scientific articles (we are referring to 2012). The scandal of Chinese trading of scientific articles and the wider plagiarism phenomena should not be underestimated. Because Chinese scientific world is growing at extremely high speed. And competitiveness is huge. It is quite obvious, then, that control system cannot keep up with one of the most spectacular expansion of scientific research in a single country that recent history (and not only) has ever known.


China invests more and more in scientific research

 In the last twenty years, Chinese investments in R&D grew 20% yearly. Last October, the Chinese Government announced, with great satisfaction, that this kind of investments now represent 2% of the GDP. In other words, Chine overtook Europe also for intensity of investments. And it is now “menacing” the American performance. Beijing aims at investing 3% of the GDP in R&D by 2020. Perhaps they will manage even earlier. In the last weeks, the Global Innovation 1000 report documented the acceleration of Chinese industry, whose investments in R&D, in 2013, increased of 35,8%, against 4,5% in Europe and 8,5% in North America. In the last five years, Chinese industrial investments in R&D passed from 0.4% (2008) to 3.2% (2013). Among the first 1,000 firms that invest the most, worldwide, 75 are Chinese. In 2012 they were 50.

All these data tell us that China aims at becoming very rapidly both one of the scientific research pole and a knowledge-based economy. And that its attempt, gigantic, is supported by consistent and coherent politics. Obviously, there are still critical points. The quality of Chinese academic research is not comparable to European or American research yet. The industry innovation capability is still limited. But the derivative – the rate of change – in the right direction is extremely high in both cases. Also on the ethics side, China is converging toward Europe and United States.

The editorial Research Integrity in China - published on Science to comment the investigation report on scientific articles trading and signed by  Wei Yang (President of the National Natural Science Foundation of China and Professor at the Institute of Applied Mechanics of the University Zhejiang of Hangzhou) - states that awareness about the importance of scientific ethics is growing among researchers, governors and media, as the 70% decrease in the intensity of scientific frauds in the last 14 years clearly shows. The absolute number of misconduct cases is still high, nowadays, because the number of Chinese researchers increased considerably (from 400,000 to 1,500,000 in the last twenty years) as also the number of articles signed by Chinese researchers: from 20,000 in 1999 to almost 200,000 in 2012.

Although science and technology development was one of the “four modernizations” pointed out by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the seventies that drove the “Chinese Renaissance”, scientific research – and, in particular, technological development - made a “big jump” in China only from 2000. An over-all expansion without precedents. The number of University students, for example, went from 11% in 2000 to 35% in 2008. Out of 140 million University students worldwide, 25 are Chinese. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of graduates per year in China went from 1.7 to 7 million. The 39% of students enrol in scientific curricula, against the 5% of American students. And the number of graduates among the working population (more than 100 million, nowadays) reaches percentage (26%) similar to Europe.

At the same time, the number of Chinese youngsters choosing to study abroad raised to more the 280,000: 13 times bigger than in 1999. Nowadays, 1.3 million of Chinese study in foreign Universities: the highest number of youngsters living abroad for education. In 2000, Chinese investments in R&D did not exceed 0.8% of GDP. In 2013 they reached 2%. In 2006 the 2006-2020 Middle and Long-Term National Plan for Science and Technology Development was launched, whose aim was founding Chinese economy on high technology goods production: passing from 30% of high-tech production in 2006 to 60% in 2020.

These data are not provided for offering a triumphalist image of Chinese economy and science (which, anyway, keeps growing at the fastest rate worldwide). But for putting into context the results of the inquiry published by Science. China has what it takes to achieve European and American scientific ethical standards (not everything, though, since democracy is still missing). If it will play well, the transition from emerging country to world economic, scientific and technological power will happen in just two generations. If it will not follow the rules, China will risk compromising an important part of its (and consequently of our) future. 

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