Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, the Nature Careers podcast. In this episode, we’re discussing the importance of materials science in China, and why it’s such a big focus of science research....
"Materials science plays a really key role in both aspects of that, both in terms of the very high-end technological stuff as well as raising the average living standard for Chinese people living in these rural communities. "
Science in China is changing rapidly and a lot of money is being thrown at it as China hopes to become a leader in scientific research and development. And one of the topics that the government is keenly interested in supporting is materials science. So in this episode, Sarah O’Meara, a London-based journalist, speaks to two editors based at the Springer Nature offices in China about why materials science is under the spotlight.
So, today we’re going to be talking about materials science in China and with me are two people who know a huge amount about it, both based in the Springer Nature office in Shanghai – Xin Li, the associate editor of Nature Materials, and John Plummer, a former senior editor for Nature Materials (he’s now the senior portfolio editor for Nature Partner Journals).
Okay, so I’m just going to start by asking a very broad question. John, tell me a little bit about the areas of materials science that China excels in, and why you think that is.
From my observation, I would say that a key area where China really does excel is in applied materials science, so materials science with an intention towards the final application. I think partly one of the reasons for this is that the Chinese government, Chinese funding agencies, they do want usable technologies to come out of the research that’s being done in China. So, to give an example of this, perhaps one of the best I can think of is research into nanomaterials, in particular, two-dimensional materials like graphene.
To add to that, I think it’s worth emphasising the importance of materials science to the development of China. I mean, you take China as a developing country and in terms of research, the government both wants to be undertaking really cutting-edge materials science research for things like the most high-end electronic devices that are being looked at anywhere, and they have to balance that with trying to raise the standard of living for Chinese people living in more rural areas. Materials science plays a really key role in both aspects of that, both in terms of the very high-end technological stuff as well as raising the average living standard for Chinese people living in these rural communities. So, the Chinese government knows the importance of materials science and that’s one of the reasons why funding is so strong.
Xin, would you agree with that characterisation?
Besides this applied materials science, I think China is also trying to encourage more innovative working in cutting-edge research areas, for example, like quantum communication and computing. In the past two years, China has made several breakthroughs with launching the first quantum satellite.
So, these high levels of funding, does that mean there are really good opportunities for scientists if they come and do materials science in China?
Yes, I think so. China has been trying to attract researchers back, especially in the past ten years there have been a lot of talent programmes in the national laboratories from the provinces and universities, and those programmes provide a very good package and funding support.
And how about for overseas scientists – is it the same?
I think for foreign scientists, especially young scientists thinking of coming to do their research in China, there’s certainly fantastic opportunities there for them. I think the advantage that potentially young foreign scientists have when they come to China is that because of this investment in materials science and science in general in China there’s fantastic facilities that many western universities would be very, very envious of and obviously, as a young scientist these are often very, very attractive.
The other advantages are that they may receive salaries that are significantly higher than they might receive in their own countries. For young foreign scientists, certainly there’s not many that have taken the plunge and actually moved to China, but there’s fantastic opportunities for those that do.
So, what areas are the most important in terms of furthering your career in materials science? What will get you funding and what will get you noticed?
We mentioned before, nanomaterials science in China, we can say, can be very well developed and I’ve noticed that they try to encourage, they try to attract more researchers in those fields where China is not as strong as nanomaterials science, so that means for the fields that China is not very strong at.
And also, they are trying to attract the researchers working in those cutting-edge areas like quantum communications and computing and also artificial intelligence.
And does this approach work in terms of the quality of materials science? Is it leading to some good innovation and some original thinking in China?
Yes, I think so, because we can see very clearly that the quality of the innovation or the research work in China is improving very fast. It’s not just the quantity of publications and the quality of the work becomes more and more important, no matter for the researchers and also in the evaluation systems.
And the policies and also the guidelines of funding agencies, they encourage innovation in a very clear way and during the evaluation, they put more and more weight on the originality and the novelty of the work, such as publications in high-profile journals instead of counting the number of publications.
Yeah, I agree. I think that in China certainly the high-level research funders – NSFC, Chinese Academy of Sciences, MLST, they realise that China needs to do more innovative research, and as Xin says, I certainly agree, innovation in research is improving here. I think one of the big barriers to more innovative research is that researchers here – I mean this is true all over the world but I think perhaps to an even greater extent – that researchers are under pressure to demonstrate the output from their research, so things like publishing in to journals, starting a company.
If you go and talk to any scientist, perhaps the number one thing that they want is freedom and time to work on what is of interest to them. They don’t want to feel under pressure that they’ve got to publish two or three papers a year. To do innovative research you need time to explore things. Some things might work and some things might not work.
So, I think there has to be more appreciation from the people in China that are allocating funding or assessing research. There has to be more appreciation that scientists do need more time.
Xin, I know that you’ve studied abroad and now you’re working back in China. Do you think there’s anything quintessentially different about the research environments between China and overseas that might also feed into why China struggles to be more innovative in its scientific research?
I think that culture in the lab is very different. In the west, I think that PhD students are more independent, and in Chinese labs, I think there are more interactions and communication between the advisors and the PhD students.
Yeah, and just to add to that, just in terms of research environment, if you walk into a lab in China, the likelihood is that all of the researchers there will be Chinese.
There’s still a very, very few number – at least compared to if we take Europe or North America – there’s a very few number of foreign researchers here actually doing their research full-time in China.
And when we’re talking about doing innovative research, it could be argued that one of the key points that you need is a diverse range of researchers, and when I say diverse, I mean you need men, you need women, you need people from different countries, people with different experience, people that have come through different educational systems.
The challenge that you have if everyone has gone through the same educational system and is of the same cultural background is that such of some of those points than Xin just mentioned – it can really be a big hindrance to doing research. So, I think that that also is a challenge that China has to face.
So, the relationship between the US and China has not been good recently and the arguments that are happening between the two countries are very much focused on who owns the intellectual property of the world.
When it comes to technology, who’s inventing the best products, who’s going to make the most money out of them and the US and China are engaged in a trade war that is making life very difficult for scientists because they are putting barriers in the way of international collaborations.
So, John, tell me about how the US-China trade war is affecting the world of science in China as you see it.
I mean I can’t give any tangible examples at the moment, but one might anticipate that a conflict like this would inevitably place barriers or restrictions on the ability for both Chinese scientists to collaborate and work and interact with researchers in the US, and likewise for the many researchers in the US that collaborate with Chinese researchers.
It could well place barriers on that, perhaps in terms of travel restrictions or restrictions on grants, if a funding agency knows that the project in collaboration with China.
And which areas of materials science do you think would be most directly affected by this ongoing tension? Which areas of research might become very, very difficult for scientists to work on collaboratively?
The memoes that restrictions are on some research areas and technologies such as artificial intelligence, supercomputing, quantum information, nanoscience and advanced manufacturing, so I think it basically covers a large number of different kinds of research areas in materials science.
So, tell me about technology transfer in China. We get the impression that China is a real powerhouse for manufacturing and there are a huge amount of new products coming out of China. What’s the reality like? How does work come out of the lab and into the factory?
I think China is paying more and more attention to the technology transfer. I think the environment right now is quite good. They’re providing a lot of support and they’re providing the platform for researchers to transfer their innovative techniques to real technologies, and to help them to build their start-ups.
And who’s driving this? Is it the scientists or is this government?
My impression was that in some areas, that the Chinese government has determined are really important and China has very good potential, such as two-dimensional materials or graphene as we mentioned earlier. I think there’s some centralised approach towards setting up agencies that will encourage technology transfer, linking together researchers and people in industry. But my experience has been that a lot of the examples of successful commercialisation have really come from the researchers themselves going out there and being very proactive in terms of finding investors, finding backers. I think one of the great opportunities and also challenges in China is that there are a lot of people in China that are capable or rather have the financial means to be able to support new technologies, support a new start-up company, but with that comes huge expectation in terms of the money that they’re going to make and also how quickly they’re going to make their money. In a western country, you might expect your payback on your investment in a new technology, you might expect to make your money back within about five years. In China, if you say to an investor that you’ll get return in five years, quite probably they’ll laugh at you. They’re not going to invest in something where they get nothing for five years. So, there’s also quite an aggressive culture for making money, and as I say, it’s good and bad. It’s good that there’s people out there that are willing to support technology transfer, but with that comes huge expectations and often unrealistic expectations.
Sarah O’MearaWell, thanks so much for joining me Xin and Jon. It’s fascinating to hear about the materials science in China, particularly at a time when it’s front and centre in the news every day – who owns the technology of the world – and it’s really important to understand what’s happening behind those wider conversations.
Thanks, Sara O’Meara, and if you want to find out some more about materials science in China, you can go to go.nature.com/materialsinchina. Thanks for listening, I’m Julie Gould.