HuaweiHow UK-China interests align in their research and development ambitions

How UK-China interests align in their research and development ambitions

China is an increasingly vital partner to the UK’s research and development sector, with the quality of research enhancing both countries’ reputations as world-class research bases

Collaboration between the UK and China is of “critical importance” to the UK’s position as a first-class knowledge economy. Speaking at the UK Academic Salon 2021, hosted by Times Higher Education, Jo Johnson, chair of TES Global, argued it was vital that, despite geopolitical tensions, research partnerships between the UK and China were maintained.

UK-China research collaborations are “increasingly central to maintaining the UK’s output and viability as a research country in a number of key areas”, Lord Johnson said. “We found that in no fewer than 20 subject areas, collaborations with China account for more than 20 per cent of the UK’s high-impact research. And in three very important fields – namely automation and control systems, telecommunications, and material science – collaborations with China represent more than 30 per cent of the UK’s most impactful output.”

In many areas of technology and physics, China publishes about five times more papers than the UK. China’s strength in life science research is growing, too. It now publishes three times the UK’s volume in molecular biology, pharmacology and environmental sciences. “The sheer scale of China’s research in technology and the physical sciences, and now increasingly in biotech, gives it a broader view of these fields,” said Lord Johnson.

In terms of generating impactful research, it made perfect sense to work with China – especially in the realm of technology, where it is a world leader in terms of its capacity and quality of research. “The relative quality and capacity of China’s research in technology rivals – and probably in some areas surpasses – that of any other country,” Lord Johnson said. “It is also ramping up its biotech research activities.”

The UK’s ability to fight climate change, modernise its economy and contend with threats of future pandemics depended on strong research partnerships, and China, with whom there has been a tenfold increase in partnerships in the past 20 years, will become the UK’s most important research partner in less than five years if current trends continue.

“Reassuringly, the quality of this collaborative research is very high,” said Lord Johnson. “Ten years ago, the citation of UK-China research was average at best. Today, such papers are often cited at twice the global rate."

Where the politics of collaboration are difficult, a nuanced approach could help UK institutions get ahead of the politics. At present, institutions individually broker their own deals. Sector bodies and government agencies could help draw up contractual frameworks for UK-China research collaborations. The UK government needed to be a proactive broker for the UK’s research community.

Partnerships needed to be surveyed to identify core dependencies and allow the UK to organise its research partnerships more strategically. “It is really important that we start to do a much better job, first of all, in mapping the relationship, monitoring it systematically and putting in place, as appropriate, measures to mitigate any risks that arise from it,” said Lord Johnson. “We need to do that very rapidly.”

Full recordings, THE’s editorial coverage and exclusive content from the 2021 UK Academic Salon is available here.

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