Chinese inventor Tao Xiangli controls his home-made humanoid robot with a remote controller in Beijing. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Beijing is the world's top science city, but Chinese policies will prevent China from becoming the world's top science country.

Much is made of China’s rise as the world’s next great power. China is forecasted to surge past the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2024, according to analysis by JPMorgan Chase & Co. And according to a recent study, China has already nearly eclipsed the United States and other Western nations as the world’s leading center for science. (The Chinese churned out nearly 3.5 million STEM graduates in 2010, compared to the U.S.’s 4.5 million, a 43 percent increase over just a decade earlier). China’s scientific output has risen precipitously over the past decade or so, increasing at an 18 percent annual clip. That outpaces even the growth of its economy, which has expanded at a rate of roughly 10 percent a year. Beijing is now the leading center for scientific publications in the world, toppling London, Tokyo, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Boston in 2010, with Shanghai rising to twelfth place (see the chart below).

(Andersson et al.)

But a forthcoming study in Environment and Planning A by Swedish regional economist David Emanuel Andersson, an Asia and China expert, and his team  finds U.S. and European cities have little to fear from the rise of China’s scientific centers. Even as the volume of China’s scientific output has exploded and its major cities have risen to the top ranks, the quality and impact of Chinese science and its major science hubs lag far beyond those of the U.S. and Europe.  As Andersson points out, Chinese science occupies a “peripheral position” in the global scientific community. And despite its meteoric rise, “[e]ven Beijing lacks the international orientation and citation impact of Western cities with similar publication volumes, such as London or Paris.”

A good part of the reason for China’s neutered preeminence is the structure and network of connections among China’s leading science cities. Andersson’s research uses comprehensive data from Thompson Reuters’ Science Citation Index to track the network of scientific production and collaboration among China’s 31 leading science cities from 1996 to 2010. The Science Citation Index is perhaps the leading gauge of scientific output in the world, covering all articles published in some 6,650 leading science and engineering journals. The study uses gravity models to map the structure of scientific productivity and collaboration (or co-authorship) across these leading Chinese cities.

The bottom line: Chinese science is inordinately dominated by a small group of cities, especially Beijing. This result reflects political considerations and priorities that tamp down more organic clusters of scientific activity and collaboration, which more easily form in leading science hubs in the U.S. and Europe.

The next three graphs show the main findings of Andersson’s research. They chart the volume of co-authorship in leading Chinese cities across three time periods: 1996-98, 2002-04, and 2008-10. Notice, in particular, the stratospheric growth of the y-axis over just a little more than a decade.

(Andersson et al.)
(Andersson et al.)
(Andersson et al.)

The pattern could not be clearer: Beijing overwhelmingly dominates Chinese science. It has twice or more the number of co-authorships of Shanghai, the second place city, in each of the three time periods, with the volume of scientific output increasing swiftly down the line. Beijing has a distinctly out-size influence over Chinese science. Instead of having multiple strong scientific hubs like New York, Boston, San Francisco and L.A. in the United States, or London and Paris in Europe, China has one. As the study points out:

Overall, our results show that politics rather than markets shape the spatial allocation of resources that support Chinese scientific research. In a market-led spatial organization of science, one would expect a city’s scientific output and connectivity to reflect general knowledge-related agglomeration economies. Not so in China, where Beijing is twice as large as Shanghai and 30 times larger than Shenzhen in output terms, and with even greater differentials in terms of network connectivity.

This, the study notes, limits the ability of Chinese science to generate important breakthrough innovations. It is a product, Andersson points out, of a system where the government calls the shots and science turns more on political criteria than on the organic connections and networks that develop in U.S. and European innovation centers. As the authors write: “Spatial proximity facilitates face-to-face communication, which in turn facilitates the transmission of tacit knowledge as well as serendipitous discoveries, both of which stimulate the production of creative outputs such as scientific publications.” Beijing’s politically imposed dominance damps down both. And this limits China’s ability to generate meaningful innovations and to translate them into economically useful technological innovations that can propel robust economic growth.

Or as Andersson succinctly puts it: “When scientists around the world look for path-breaking ideas they still prefer Cambridge—whether in England or Massachusetts—over Beijing or Tokyo. To break out of this impasse, China may need a new 'cultural revolution' more than it needs money.”

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