There is a stark contrast in the way UK-based researchers collaborate with colleagues in China and India.
Two reports that we have published in the past six months spotlighted these differences, illustrating the strategically nuanced approaches needed by government and universities alike in deepening research ties between the two countries.
Over the past 40 years, research output (measured as research publications) has grown exponentially in China, in contrast to India which oversaw a gradual rise in the numbers of papers published, with a somewhat steeper increase after 2000.
Collaborations on rise
Critically, from a UK perspective, this pattern is amplified when looking at collaborations between China and the UK, and between India and the UK. Bilateral is sometimes a better guide than multilateral collaboration, because it excludes highly multi-authored physics and epidemiology papers.
By either count, the number of collaborative papers between UK-based researchers and China-based researchers increased over four decades by a factor of more than 1,000, compared to a 15-fold (bilateral) or 45-fold (multilateral) increase for India.
Total UK-China collaboration rose from fewer than 100 co-authored papers before 1990, to 750 per year in 2000, 3,324 in 2010, and 16,267 papers (about 11 per cent of UK output) in 2019.
For India, the equivalent figures are fewer than 150 before 1990, 400 by 2000, just over 1,000 by 2010 and about 4,000 in 2019.
As we note in the two reports, as collaborative papers tend to receive more citations, the bibliometric impact of these papers has an overall bearing on the performance of the Chinese, Indian, and UK research systems.
A tale of two countries
However, perhaps the most interesting observation in comparing the structure of UK collaboration with India and China, is the contrasting nature of the research systems in both countries.
At the risk of over-simplification, the Chinese research system has moved rather quickly from institutions focussed on industrial sectors to one that is defined by a number of world-leading comprehensive universities. The Indian system remains fragmented over a large number of subject-specific research institutes, with only a small number truly competitive on the international stage.
At a practical level, this makes it easier for UK universities to develop institutional-level collaborations with Chinese universities than with Indian research institutes: the transaction costs of developing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between one UK university and one Chinese university is lower, than for multiple faculty-to-research-institute agreements which are needed for India.
That said, whilst institutional-level collaboration may theoretically be easier with China than with India, there are legitimate concerns that UK-China research collaboration is concentrated in technology-based fields: in some (e.g., telecommunications), more than 30 per cent of UK papers are in collaboration with Chinese-based researchers.
For some commentators, that raises concerns around national, and indeed commercial, security. Such concerns do not arise with India, where citation impact in physical sciences and engineering is above world average and rising.
Path to follow
So, what should UK universities and the UK government do in light of these observations?
First is to acknowledge the undoubted scientific benefits of international collaboration and to support the principles of open science. Over the past decade, China and, to a lesser extent, India have become far more deeply embedded in the UK higher education and research system.
The benefits of international student mobility from these two giants, and collaboration with their institutions in scientific domains related to climate change and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, are substantial.
Second, in making this an institutional and national priority, it’s important to realise that there are risks and challenges that need to be managed. The challenge with India is the higher investment needed to make collaborations mutually beneficial given the current structure of its research system.
For China, managing the risks around national security and threats to academic freedom is essential.
The possibility that student flows and science collaboration are collateral victims of mounting geopolitical tensions is becoming increasingly real. Disorderly disengagement would damage the UK university system, with significant costs for tertiary education and the performance of the UK knowledge economy.
The government should include higher education and research policy in a flexible and pragmatic whole-of-government approach to China, enabling a principled defence of UK interests and values.
Indeed, partly in response to our report on China, the UK government recently established a Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT) within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that “will help researchers make the most of their collaborations while helping to protect themselves” on a range of issues such as export controls and the protection of intellectual property.
Third, is to ensure a balanced flow of collaboration between the UK and China and India. It seems likely that more China and India-based researchers visit the UK than UK-based researchers presently visit China and India. Part of this may be related to language skills but to realise the full benefits of collaboration, it is important to have your “eyes in the lab”. Specific schemes that support an increase in UK-based researchers spending time in both countries would be welcomed.
Finally, the UK government should continue to work closely with UK universities to develop a suite of policies and funding schemes that encourage and incentivise such future collaborations, partly to fulfil the instrumental aspirations around “Global Britain” but also because of the soft, intangible, benefits of understanding different cultures – and their approach to research and research management and decision making – through the eyes of collaborations.