Think tank head warns of China's rise in innovation

By Ariel Tung and Yan Yiqi (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-02-14 07:42
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The American head of a major nonprofit think tank has sounded an alarm about the United States' lack of investment in innovation and says the nation is losing its innovative edge to China.

Robert Atkinson, president of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based public policy think tank that has ties to many of the largest IT companies in the US, also says China is quickly gaining ground in science and technology.

Atkinson's warnings come on the heels of worrisome data released by the National Science Board, which serves as an independent policy advisory body to US lawmakers. According to the Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) 2010, the annual growth of research and development expenditures in the US was just over 5 percent, less than four times the growth rate of China, India, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore.

Atkinson adds that China's investment expenditures as a share of its GDP has gone up 20 percent from 1999 to 2006, while the US' R&D investment as a proportion of its GDP has increased by 1 percent during the same period.

He says the US has "shortchanged research and development investment" and is less willing to invest in science and technology today than compared to 30 years ago.

Howard Wial at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, another public policy think tank, agrees that while federal financial support has flattened in the US, China is providing more support in science and innovation.

"China is trying to build up its manufacturing capabilities and moving toward higher-value products. The government in China is able to direct R&D investment even in the private sector. But that shouldn't be an excuse for the US to lag. I think the US can do better," Wial says.

One important consequence to the lack of innovation in investment is a lagging student interest in studying sciences or engineering, Atkinson says.

"Our colleges don't do enough to keep their students engaged in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. High schools don't do a very good job in teaching them. On the other hand, there's a report about China - why they have so many math and science students. It's a lot easier to go to college if you major in math and science in China," he says.

Chinese experts are cautious about agreeing with Atkinson's comments and say the US is still far ahead of China in technology.

John Deng, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, says the US has excelled in both manufacturing and innovation while China is currently efficient only in manufacturing.

Wu Yishan, chief engineer at the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, says China still lags behind the international standard for technology. He says it will be decades before the technology in China catches up to the standards set by the US and Europe.

The comments from the Chinese experts conflict with a recent European Commission report, which stated that businesses in Brazil and China are quickly catching up with rivals in the European Union.

According to the SEI 2010 data, the number of domestically earned doctorates in sciences and engineering in China has increased by more than 10 times since the early 1990s.

The number of science and engineering doctorates awarded to Chinese students in the US has also increased. Since 2006, more than half of the science and engineering doctorates in the US are being earned by foreign students, out of which 31 percent are mostly students from China.

Jan Borgonjon, president of InterChina Consulting, which has been based in China for more than 20 years, thinks the influx of Chinese students to the US will benefit both China and the US.

"The fact that the best Chinese minds go to the US to study and do research only strengthens that position of the US," Borgonjon says. "At the same time it is good for China, as some of these people will go back to China and contribute to the development of the Chinese industry."

It is foreseeable that as China's economy advances, more Chinese scientists and engineers will head home.

"In the next 20 to 30 years, there will be fewer students coming from Asia as China and other countries get richer and develop better education systems," Atkinson says.

But Borgonjon does not think there will be a problem of Chinese scientists and engineers leaving the US in the next 10 years.

"The majority of Chinese graduates are going to stay one way or another in the US, although many of them might divide their time between the two countries - which is what is happening already," he says.

China Daily

(China Daily 02/14/2011 page22)