The UK's seven research councils this week opened a bureau in China, signalling a growing desire to collaborate with the emerging economy, writes Zoë Corbyn. The Beijing office, the councils' first outside Europe, will employ two UK research council staff along with two local support staff. It was officially opened by John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as part of a trip to China to promote co- operation in science and higher education between the two countries.
"It is not enormous, but it is a base to keep in touch with the various research agencies in China," Mr Denham told The Times Higher . "Having the Research Councils UK office is a very practical way of making sure that we don't miss the opportunities for collaborative research with China."
As well as looking at the scope for closer collaboration and developing activities to lower barriers, the office will run a website to promote mutual understanding of both countries' research systems and strengths. Further offices are also set to open in Washington DC at the end of November and in Delhi in 2008, as set out in the RCUK international strategy released in July.
Mr Denham said that research and higher education collaboration with China was in the UK's best interests. "There is no future for this country in thinking that we meet the challenge that comes from emerging nations like China and India by cutting ourselves off from them. As they increase their number of graduates and research base, the best thing for us to do is to be deepening our collaboration with them. This is a world where the quality of any country's international links is going to be central to how successful it is."
Mr Denham's trip follows in the wake of the Government's response to a report from the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in July on the international policies and activities of the research councils, which raised concerns that the UK's position as a desirable international research partner was slipping.
A recent report by the firm Evidence Ltd for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills showed that the UK produced more co- authored papers with China than any other European country - 5,505 between 2001 and 2005 - although other countries' collaborations rates were growing faster.
In the select committee's report, MPs welcomed the expansion of RCUK offices abroad but said RCUK should clarify how they would be funded and their performance monitored. The Government response leaves it to "ongoing planning activity" to sort out but pledges that the Chinese office will develop performance indicators "in the first year of operation".
Mr Denham also attended the third annual UK-China Education Summit in China during which two memorandums of understanding were signed.
One stressed the general need for greater partnership in higher education and the other strengthened the graduate work experience programme, in which UK businesses temporarily employ Chinese graduates and research students.