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Recognition by international community rises significantly
Turning China into a leader in science and technology is a long-term goal, but Chinese in the intensely competitive fields are already making advances in terms of respect among international peers.
"Chinese scientists are among the brightest and most talented scientific force in the world," said Richard Zhao, a co-director of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America, which has 2,500 members from academia, medicine and business.
He credits China's increased openness and improved educational system over the past 30 years.
Chinese scientists who return home after studying abroad are also crucial in expanding their country's base of expertise by passing on their training and education in developed economies to succeeding generations, said Zhao, who is also a professor of pathology at the University of Maryland medical school and head of the university hospital's molecular diagnostics lab.
Bao Zhenan, 42, is a US resident whose accomplishments in science — more than 280 referred publications and 50 patents — have made her a rising star in the eyes of peers and even local media. Three of her research papers, about an ultra-thin synthetic material, were published by the journal Nature Nanotechnology between 2010 and 2012.
"My research group has developed a skin-like synthetic material that heals itself in 30 minutes if torn or cut," said Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University in California since 2004. The findings could be applied to medical treatments or the development of new touch screens for digital devices.
The government has been pushing forward outreach. The National Medium and Long-Term Talent Development Plan (2010-20) outlines priorities to attract highly skilled professionals through incentives such as housing, career development and research grants for overseas-educated Chinese scholars.
Under the plan, Beijing in 2008 launched the Thousand Talents Plan, which aims to improve China's workforce within 10 years by encouraging highly educated Chinese to return home for high-paying, prestigious jobs. A follow-up plan, Thousand Young Talents, aims to attract some 2,000 graduates from abroad to work in the natural science or engineering fields in China.
Investment in research and development nearly tripled between 2000 and 2005, according to the China Association for Science and Technology. A 2006 report by the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that funds US institutions' research, called China's stepped-up R&D spending "unprecedented for any country in recent memory".
Government support for scientific research and development is "essential" to innovation in any country, said Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal Science.
"Since 1999, China's investment in science has grown 10 times faster — as a share of its economy — than US investment in science," he said.
"China's leaders clearly recognize the connection between increased government support for science and the discoveries that drive economic prosperity."
Cooperation has both guided and benefited from China's emphasis on science and scientific education. Research papers authored or co-authored by Chinese scientists are increasingly gaining respect among their counterparts abroad.
The respected 133-year-old journal Science in 2012 published 81 original research papers by Chinese-born authors. That's up from 76 papers in 2011 and 70 in 2010.
"Although the United States is still the leading producer of highly cited research articles, our data show that China is quickly closing the gap and is on course to overtake Germany and the United Kingdom by 2014," said Charlotte Liu, China managing director for scientific publications at Nature's publisher, Macmillan, which is owned by Germany's Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH.
According to a breakdown of Nature's most frequently cited by other scientists in 2011, China-based authors accounted for 11.3 percent. China ranked fourth, behind the US at 50.7 percent, Germany at 14.5 percent and the UK at 14.3 percent.
Chinese scientists, or those affiliated with an institution in China, contributed 366 articles to Nature and Nature-branded publications in 2012, up from 273 the previous year.
While the quantity of peer-reviewed research from China has increased, so has the quality, said Liu, who credits the advent of national reforms in education, consolidation of research institutions, greater sophistication of scientists and increased R&D investment.
The return of Western-educated Chinese scientists has helped, she said, particularly those who have honed their English-writing skills through exchanges or cooperation.
The Nature executive said Chinese-trained scientists in the West have worked with her company as writers, reviewers and editors.
"A lack of basic research in China decades ago meant they had little choice but to go west to advance their research careers. We're delighted to see that this one-way movement has become a much healthier, balanced, two-way communication."
Talented Chinese graduate students still flock to top Western universities, but now opportunities at home beckon. Some elite researchers have returned to run labs and institutes in China, heightening interaction with the diaspora of Chinese scientists abroad. This dynamic exchange of ideas, people and projects will get stronger, experts say.
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Leshner said the journal has enlarged its pool of contributors through cooperation with the China Association for Science and Technology.
"AAAS has long had a news-reporting presence in China and, like so many journal publishers, we are investigating options for increasing our activities in China in the future," Leshner said.
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