The benefits of collaborating with Chinese universities

The UK has a strong history of research collaboration with China, based on a growing understanding of mutual strengths. In fact, the UK is second only to the US as a partner in collaborative research for Chinese counterparts and together we have produced over 60,000 co-authored publications since 2013.

It is increasingly clear that this partnership in research will become more important as China grows in prominence in the worldwide research landscape.

China is already one of the world’s great scientific superpowers, projected to overtake the US for research output by 2022 and, sometime shortly thereafter, to overtake the US in quality terms as measured by field-weighted citations. Already China produces nearly 20% of the world’s highly cited articles, with a growth rate which dwarfs most of its competitors.

And when the UK and China work together, we generally do better than when we work alone. Recent analysis has shown that the top 12% of UK-China research papers score more than four times the world average in citation impact.

Supporting collaboration

For this reason, the UK government has invested heavily, alongside their Chinese counterparts in funding mechanisms to make it easier for our researchers to work together. The UK China Research and Innovation Partnership Fund, launched in 2014, has seen more than £60 million of UK funding, matched by China, invested in research in areas such as food and water security, energy, creative economy, urbanisation, education and health. Since its launch more than 460 joint projects have been funded. A further 39 joint projects have been funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund in topics such as environmental change and sustainable food systems.

These umbrella schemes are complemented by specific schemes run by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through its constituent research councils. For example, the BBSRC China Partnering Awards support access to research facilities and promote the exchange of scientists, especially early career researchers to facilitate links between research teams. The EPSRC has a similar scheme which provides support for research in areas such as low-carbon cities; smart grids and electric vehicles; and sustainable materials.

UKRI goes to China

This week marks the official launch of UKRI’s China office, which will build on a decade of research council-facilitated collaborations that is evidenced by a £275 million joint portfolio featuring partnerships in medical and rehabilitation robots, virtual and augmented reality, wireless sensors and the 3D modelling of drug-resistant bacteria.

Meanwhile, the body which represents the leaders of the UK’s universities in the international sphere, Universities UK International, also runs several initiatives with partners in the British Council and Chinese counterparts. For example, the UK China University Consortium on Engineering Education and Research, funded by BEIS and the British Council, brings together leading engineering institutions in the UK and China to foster academic exchange, joint and dual degrees, collaboration in postdoctoral training and joint research projects. Universities are also working together to exchange students. The UK government, through the British Council and others, has set an ambition to send 80,000 UK students to study, work or volunteer in China by 2020, while more than one in five international students in the UK is Chinese.

A joint strategy

Recognising how far we have come, in 2017 the UK and Chinese governments went a step further, launching what I believe is the world’s first joint science and innovation strategy, setting out a framework for future cooperation to jointly tackle global challenges and drive economic growth over the next ten years. The strategy, which spans basic research through to commercialisation of new technologies, covers life sciences, food security, renewable energy and environmental technologies, amongst other topics. It brings together existing initiatives but also introduces new cooperation mechanisms such as an annual flagship challenge programme which this year focuses on agricultural technologies.

The joint strategy also sends an important signal that the two governments have put science and innovation at the heart of our diplomatic relationship, and they feature consistently and prominently in the narrative about the ‘golden era’ in UK-China relations. The UK research community has already benefited from this prominence and UKRI, through its China based team, aims to play a full supportive role in ensuring that we can make the best possible use of the opportunities this creates.

The UK is undoubtedly a world-leader in research. To remain so, it is clear that we must remove the barriers that might prevent us working with the best. Our future research success will partly depend on the mechanisms we have put in place to ensure that we can work with colleagues in China with as little friction as possible.

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