UK universities are already China’s best partners in the West

It is no surprise that universities and science are high on the agenda for Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK this week, says Alice Gast

October 20, 2015

China watchers have spent recent months observing the Shanghai Composite Index’s fluctuations, and puzzling over their meaning for the future of China and the rest of us. They are looking in the wrong place. 

A far more telling measure can be found in research citation indices and world university rankings, where the rise of Chinese research and education is extraordinarily clear. Four Chinese universities (including two from Hong Kong) are in the top 100 of Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings. Their collaborative work is being cited in hundreds of thousands of high-quality academic papers. In 2005, just 3 per cent of Nature and Science papers published by academics at my university, Imperial College London, also included an author from a Chinese institution. Today, 22 per cent of our papers in those journals include Chinese co-authors.

But it’s the stories behind those numbers that really show us why China matters so much. Flick through any major scientific journal and you’ll see why.

On my desk, I have a copy of Science that features a significant breakthrough in the fight against antibiotic resistance. This collaboration between researchers at Imperial College and colleagues at China’s Peking University (with US partners at Pennsylvania State University and University of Wisconsin-Madison) exposed a chink in the armour of disease-causing bugs, with the discovery of a protein that controls bacterial defences. It could have implications for healthcare for decades to come. It may help us understand why many drugs are becoming dangerously ineffective, and may give us a chance to reverse that process.

This fundamental leap forward in science illustrates the rapid rise in the quality of Chinese universities. Their scientists have become full partners with the UK’s best – and we need them to be if we are to deal with some of the great challenges of our time, such as antibiotic resistance, climate change or creating liveable cities.

For example, whether it’s Oxford Circus or Xujiahui station at 6pm on a Friday, London’s tube and Shanghai’s subway networks face remarkably similar challenges managing crowds at critical junctures. As we saw during this year’s tube strikes, disruption to a major city’s transport network has serious implications. Imperial’s Data Science Institute is working with Chinese peers and city authorities to better understand the vast amounts of data generated by subway users in both cities, building on lessons from the London Olympics.

It’s no surprise that universities and science are near the top of President Xi Jinping’s agenda for his UK state visit. He knows that our universities are the most productive research engines in the world. He sees that we are very collaborative and routinely work with researchers around the world; more than half of all published UK academic work involves international co-authors. He understands that the collaborations between Chinese and UK universities have been beneficial for both countries.  

This collaborative spirit shows science diplomacy in action. It’s the process that brought together scores of nations, including traditional rivals, at Cern to discover the Higgs boson. Throughout history, scientists have collaborated with one another across borders, even through times of strife, because they seek the very best intellectual partners. They build relationships to pursue the best science. Science diplomacy is becoming a key component of our foreign policy and our researchers lead the way in relationships with China.

The UK’s future ability to project soft power is even more promising. We are helping to educate China’s future leaders. At Imperial, 2,000 of our students come from China – the largest group apart from Britons. These are the people who will shape the direction of the next global superpower. Wherever they go and whatever they do after obtaining their degrees, their ties with the UK will remain.

China’s students are sometimes stereotyped as smart and hardworking, but lacking in the creativity of their Western peers. Too often, it is said, they fail to mix with students from other backgrounds. I think this is untrue. Every day I meet Chinese students who are willing to think creatively, take calculated risks and apply their outstanding intellectual skills to societal challenges. They embrace student life and all the opportunities London and the UK have to offer. When President Xi meets some of them at Imperial this week, he’ll see how Chinese and British students mix with one another and with many others from around the world. They work together to develop entrepreneurial ideas, create opportunities for economic growth and make the UK and China better places.

For instance, Yan Xu, an MSc strategic marketing student from Guangzhou, recently led an international Imperial team, including several Britons, to win the McKinsey Venture Academy Award and £10,000 of seed funding for her innovation in coffee production business modelling. Her invention, being piloted in Ethiopia, makes coffee production less wasteful, and is set to improve the economic conditions for coffee producers in some of the world’s poorest countries. 

George Osborne wants the UK to become “China’s best partner in the West”. Our universities already are. Through academic collaborations with China, the UK is becoming richer and more influential.

Alice Gast is president of Imperial College London




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