Operating as if Beijing de facto called the shots

What I read this weekend: The Economist has a fairly rosy outlook on China’s ability to lead the world in science and innovation. An over simplification of their position, but essentially:

  • Advances in science require collaborating with the international science community, and China will not become the super power that it wants to be if it doesn’t abide by the community’s standards and conventions.
  • Rather than shunning their Chinese counterparts, Western scientists should carefully collaborate such that they can promote accountability and transparency.
  • At some point, Beijing’s grip on critical thought may hinder their ability to foster innovative thinking.

With my own Western bias, this line of reasoning makes a whole lot of sense. I find myself wanting to be as optimistic as the authors. But how does our own biases shape how we right size China’s ability to realize their ambitions? In 2016, China surpassed the U.S. in peer-reviewed science and engineering articles published (although the Economist claims these papers were lower quality). Combined with research coming out of the E.U., the West still leads but China’s growth rate suggests they could catch up.

The first question I have is perhaps the easiest to answer: what’s the timeline for the West to exert our influence, when Beijing has invested such significant money and brainpower behind the effort?

Then: how much soft power do we have, really? Are we preaching to our own? Meanwhile, Beijing has demonstrated its own form of influence in other ways, as it’s tried to do so with the Internet. And also, this. Basically, find other ways to set the rules, and then everyone has to play your game.

And are we thinking correctly about capability? Perhaps there are different ways of thinking and reasoning that lead to advances in science, and the West has just demonstrated one way that works. Also, I’d like to think that we all have access to our god-given human ingenuity, and this potential is free from the political system that govern our lives. We shouldn’t let our faith in our capitalist democracy become blind hubris. The Economist speaks a bit to this:

“But the idea that you can get either truly reliable science or truly great science in a political system that depends on a culture of unappealable authority is, as yet, unproven. Perhaps you can. Perhaps you cannot. And perhaps, in trying to do so, you will discover new ways of thinking as well as fruitful knowledge.”

Would it be more prudent if we just operated as if China will become a dominant power in science and technology? We could then be proactive about the potential implications. Meanwhile, we should continue to deliver and set standards for high-quality research. This includes more transparent and reproducible research. And finding alternative sources of funding: we frequently fund research through grants from organizations that may have a special interest in the outcomes, leading to conflicts of interest and questions the credibility of the outcomes. And we should invest much more in science and math education.

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