Looking East for Research Experiences

Credit: D.B. King

Although many Chinese postgraduates come to Europe, only a few European scientists think of China when considering where to go for a Ph.D. or a postdoc. China, after all, is not one of the traditional scientific destinations, and young scientists are often concerned about language barriers, cultural differences, and poor facilities. But science and technology research in China is changing. The new generation of Chinese scientists speak excellent English, and the Chinese government has revamped its research facilities. "China has invested immensely in its science and technology research and has the potential to become the world's next scientific superpower," says Marisa Bantjes, China Programme Manager at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

The European Community (EC) increasingly recognises China's potential and has started making more funding available to enable European researchers to collaborate with the fast-developing country. In the EC's 6th Framework Programme, China was ranked the second most popular country for international collaborations, after Russia. And the EC isn't alone in Europe; many national initiatives across Europe share the goal of expanding collaborations with China. To help promote these initiatives and address some of the concerns about a research experience in China, the EC launched the China-EU Science and Technology Year (CESTY) on 11 October 2006.

Already, the first generation of European scientists involved in collaborations with China is returning with reports of positive experiences. "Ten years ago, co-operations between Europe and China involved mainly a transfer of knowledge from Europe to China. Now, co-operations are based on equality and give benefits to both sides," says Bantjes.

Money matters

In addition to CESTY, a network of European science policy and funding organisations has been created by the EC to pool the organisations' efforts to expand research co-operation with China. The network, Coordination of Research between Europe and China (CO-REACH) is a valuable tool for anyone looking to fund a collaborative research project or scientific visit to China. The CO-REACH Web site's directory contains details of funding opportunities in most European countries and covers the natural sciences, medical and life sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

KNAW is a CO-REACH member. KNAW has been running a China Exchange Programme since the 1980's. In 2005 alone, KNAW funded 25 joint research projects involving the exchange of 111 scholars between the two countries. But whereas many Chinese graduates have come to the Netherlands to complete Ph.D.s, no Dutch postgraduate has yet gone to China to do the same. This is something KNAW hopes to change this year, with its third call for proposals for a joint Ph.D. training programme with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Marisa Bantjes (center) and two visitors from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Dr. Wang Lei (left) and Ms Liu Yingxiang.

"We need a few brave pioneers to set the standard," says Bantjes. "Chinese universities are ready and eager for European scientists to come and study for their Ph.D.s in China. They see it as the final step in becoming equal with Western universities." KNAW's invitation is aimed at students who have already started Ph.D.s in the Netherlands, or are about to. They can obtain financial support for stays in China ranging from a few months to a few years, including free accommodation and tuition fees. Dutch students wishing to pursue a full Chinese academic degree will additionally receive a modest scholarship for daily living expenses from CAS. "Relative to European incomes, the Chinese income is very low, and this has been a problem in attracting people to China," says Bantjes. "But living expenses are very low, and students can live well on the scholarships that are provided."

Wolfgang Hennig, a German professor of genetics, has been in China for many years. Hennig works at the Max Planck Society's ( Max-Planck Gesellschaft, MPG) Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai--a joint venture between MPG and CAS. Hennig agrees that the low salaries are one reason European researchers are deterred from coming to China. But this is where the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, DAAD) can help. Hennig originally came to China on a long-term contract with the DAAD that made up the difference between the local salary and the salary he would have received in Germany. The DAAD also funds some of the students in his lab in Shanghai.

Other examples of CO-REACH funding initiatives are the many tools offered by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS), which range from mechanisms that fund short visits to others supporting more formal arrangements such as joint labs. France has several other programmes in China, including the Franco-Chinese Foundation for Science and its Applications, Beijing; the Sino-French Laboratory for Computer Science, Automation, and Applied Mathematics, Beijing; the Franco-Chinese Laboratory for Catalysis, Dalian; and the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai.

Cultural differences and challenges

Initiatives such as these show that China is becoming more international. Still, working in China can be challenging for European scientists, says Hennig. Cultural difference is one challenge his team faces; another is the unpredictability of lab supplies due to poor service from companies and problems at customs. "My motto is, 'Do what you can do and not what you want to do,'" says Hennig. He is also concerned about the level of corruption and scientific misconduct that still exists in China, as well as implementation of the country's bioethics policies. "Chinese bioethics regulations and guidelines do not differ substantially from those in Europe or the United States; however, in contrast to European and U.S. regulations, they are not enforceable by law, and appropriate controls are missing," he says.

Another challenge is adapting to the way labs are run in China. "There are fundamental differences in the way labs are run," says Guusje Bonnema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and this can make collaboration difficult. For example, in most Wageningen University labs, technicians rule the laboratory: They order chemicals and equipment, make stock solutions, and participate in ongoing research. But they also design laboratory rules and protocols and make sure that all laboratory workers stick to them. "However, in the Chinese labs that I have dealt with," says Bonnema, "technicians do not design rules and protocols nor implement those rules, probably because of differences in hierarchy." And because no one else does it, protocols are not standardised, different researchers use different solutions, and the cause of failing experiments cannot be deduced systematically.

Guusje Bonnema with her Chinese colleagues

According to Minh-Hà Pham-Delègue, Assistant Director for Asia-Pacific at the CNRS Office of European and International Relations, the main challenge for French scientists collaborating with China is keeping their research output high. "The number of CNRS scientists visiting China rose three-fold in the last 2 years, from 227 visits in 2003 to 803 visits in 2005," she says. "But, while the number of co-publications between CNRS and Chinese teams has also increased considerably in that time, it is not at the same rate as the exchange visits." To maintain their research output, she says, scientists who collaborate with China must be especially motivated and willing to make the effort to overcome cultural differences.

French researcher Bernard Hebral of the Research Centre for Ultra-low Temperatures in Grenoble, France, says that nurturing long-term collaborations--and the resulting improvements in communication--can help to solve this and other problems. "It takes more than just a few months to reap the benefits of a Chinese collaboration," he says. "You have to think long-term." But he says it's worth the trouble. "It is a bit like learning a musical instrument," he says. "After the initial struggle and the frustration, it can be a very rewarding experience, not just for yourself, but also for those around you."

The benefits of looking east

Zoe Wilson

"Europe has much to benefit from collaboration with China, given the strength of expertise in many areas, including agriculture," says Tim Willis, head of the international relations unit at the U.K.'s Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC), which offers China Partnering Awards. "China needs to feed a fifth of the world's population with 9% or so of the world's agricultural land. There are enormous opportunities for considerable added value by working with scientists in China in areas such as crop improvement, food safety, biological control, and soil sustainability and quality. China is also developing its competencies in genomics and structural biology. The Chinese government is scaling up scientific activity, through budget increases and the provision of infrastructure and facilities."

Zoe Wilson, associate professor in plant sciences at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom has made several visits to China for collaborative projects. The work, which has been funded by the Royal Society, has benefited from the huge priority agricultural science is given in China. "The Chinese tend to want to concentrate on applied research rather than basic research," she says. "Agricultural sciences are a priority, and applied projects, such as those that are looking into how to increase crop yields, get more funding than others." Another important difference with Europe is that "the Chinese have a more pragmatic attitude to the genetic modification of plants," she says. "It is difficult to get field trials for genetically modified crops in Europe, and China will leave Europe behind in this area if we are not careful."

Agricultural cooperation is the most obvious ground for scientific collaborations, but potential for scientific relationships exists in other fields. Hebral and his colleagues, together with several other French laboratories, have been collaborating with the Northwest Institute for Nonferrous Metal Research, now in Xian, for more than 25 years. "There are not many places in the world that make high-quality superconductor materials, and our colleagues in China deliver first-class samples," he says. "Our collaboration works because our skills complement each other. Their strength is in the production of the material, and our strength is in its characterisation and in the fundamental physics of superconducting materials," he says.

Despite the challenges, Bonnema is eager to persuade researchers to go to China to experience life there for themselves. "There are many excellent research groups in China," she says. "As long as you carefully select which group to join, working in China can be a rewarding experience." Hennig adds that the cultural component alone justifies a visit. "I consider the unique opportunity of experiencing a cultural environment so totally different from that of Europe as more than sufficient compensation for all the challenges we face," he says. "The friendliness and hospitality of the Chinese people is beyond anything you will ever experience in Europe."

Nadya Anscombe is a freelance science writer in the U.K.

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