China has made a huge commitment to science and technology and opened its doors to foreign researchers. Recognizing the importance of science to its future development, China has struck collaboration agreements with the United States, Canada, the European Union, and many Asian countries. For most Western scientists, however, the decision to conduct research in China is a major step.

To help researchers with this decision and with planning a visit to China, Science Careers offers this short introduction to science in China, including information about the organization of China's scientific institutions, some tips to help you plan your scientific-exchange experience, and some perspective on China's research priorities and how Chinese scientists do their work.

The Chinese research system

China has a complex system for organizing and conducting science, one that reflects both its tradition of central planning and its desire to modernize and decentralize its economy while inspiring entrepreneurship.

China's priorities for research and development (R&D) are set by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). The ministry also sets the country's basic research policies and integrates them into the country's 5-year economic plans. MOST supports several ambitious, long-term initiatives, the most important of which is a comprehensive R&D program known by the code number 863. The "863 program" identifies the strategic sectors for China's technological development during China's 5-year economic-development plan. This program provides the policy rationale for China's high-profile (and well-funded) megaprojects, described below.

Another direction-setting institution is the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), China's national science academy. CAS plays a role similar to that of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, advising the country's leadership on science and technology issues. CAS has six major academic sections, for mathematics and physics, chemistry, life sciences and medicine, earth science, information technology, and technology sciences. In addition to its advisory functions, CAS maintains 11 regional branches that oversee more than 100 disciplinary research institutes and training graduate students and postdocs. CAS is also an important educational administrator, operating the University of Science and Technology of China, the CAS Graduate University, and the Beijing Institute of Management.

CAS's Bureau of International Cooperation supervises the organization's foreign-collaboration activities including joint research projects, expeditions, laboratories, workshops, and young-scientists' groups. Young-scientist groups bring together young specialists, including some participants from American universities.

According to its annual report, in 2005 the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) distributed 3.5 billion yuan ($447 million) in research funding, 2.7 billion yuan ($345 million) from government sources. NSFC is similar in some respects to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF); its main mission is funding basic research in China across a wide range of disciplines. NSFC has seven scientific departments: mathematical and physical sciences, chemical sciences, life science (including biomedical disciplines), life science, engineering and materials sciences, information sciences, and management sciences. In addition, NSFC's Key Program funds interdisciplinary and short-term projects, and its Major Research Plan supports research aligned with China's national strategic objectives.

NSFC has memoranda of understanding with 60 scientific and technical institutes and organizations worldwide, including some in the United States, Canada, and Europe. NSFC takes advantage of these arrangements to sponsor joint research projects and conferences, and to pay for Chinese nationals working abroad to return to China to work or lecture.

NSFC uses a peer-review system to evaluate funding proposals. The group says it has 61 disciplinary panels with 753 direct participants and more than 20,000 corresponding reviewers.

The focus of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) is, as you might expect, on engineering and technology rather than pure science. Like CAS, CAE acts as an expert resource for governmental authorities and fosters exchanges within and outside China. A similar organization working in a different domain is the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. CASS hosts a Bureau of International Cooperation, which is responsible for exchanges with foreign governments and institutions within its disciplinary scope.

Where's the research done?

Research in China is carried out at universities, industrial sites, and research institutes. The Chinese government has designated a series of research institutes, many affiliated with universities, as State Key Laboratories. According to Richard Nader, NSF's East Asia and Pacific program manager, many of China's State Key Laboratories began as clusters of science and technology talent but have developed over time into well-organized and supported centers of excellence. These labs, Nader says, provide the Chinese government with "a way to focus funding on basic research targets."

Some of China's State Key Laboratories have exchange programs with the West. For example, the State Key Laboratory of Estuarine and Coastal Research, located at East China Normal University in Shanghai, hosts 20 guest researchers, half of whom are from outside China. The lab has also carried out several joint research projects with institutes or universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Japan.

Focus on the economy

Earlier this year, MOST approved a series of what it calls megaprojects as part of the current 5-year economic development plan. As Science magazine reported in March 2006 (subscription required), the plan specifies 16 major initiatives, including basic research projects in protein science, quantum physics, nanotechnology, and developmental and reproductive science. Citing figures from China's State Council (the highest executive-level governing body), Science reported that by 2020, basic research would account for 15% of total R&D spending in China, up from 6% in 2004.

Still, because China's government sees science largely as a way to stimulate economic development, it tends to give high priority to research that leads to fast commercial payoffs. For now, says NSF's Nader, although China welcomes researchers in all disciplines and for basic and applied research, "the attention of funders is going to mid- and downstream development, for those projects that are close to market and have large potential payoffs."

Most scientists probably would consider this a disadvantage, but in an April article on Science Careers, David Evans, a chemist working in Beijing University's Department of Chemical Engineering, noted some advantages of China's market-based view of science. His department, he says, takes an interdisciplinary approach involving chemists and chemical engineers. This approach, which he says is not often found in European universities, closely ties together basic with applied research. The university even has pilot-plant facilities to develop processes and products for fast commercial development, he notes.

China has begun encouraging researchers to work and study in the less-developed interior rather than the eastern coastal cities where much of the academic and R&D activity now takes place. Nader says the old American phrase "Go West" would aptly describe this policy. "Most of the money is now on the east coast," he says, "but there is a move on now to fund anything they can in the western regions."

Preparing for the exchange experience

An exchange visit with China is a major undertaking, so scientists need to plan thoroughly. Because of differences in language and culture and the challenges of obtaining visas and permits, the planning process for students and researchers can take many months or even years.

Robert Laing, diplomat in residence at Arizona State University in Tempe, urges research scholars and students considering work or study in China to do their homework before embarking on the journey. Laing, who until July 2006 served at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as cultural attaché, says that China has discarded many of its old Communist habits. "It's very capitalist," says Laing. "You need to do due diligence with anything in China." Laing recommends that students consider short-term exchanges in China before jumping into full-scale degree programs. "It might be better to steer people toward [a Western] university program with a link to China," he suggests. American students, he says, need to make sure that a degree gained from a Chinese institution will be honored by employers and academic institutions back home.

Understanding the language and culture of the country will help with any new exchange experience, but in China, linguistic and cultural literacy are even more important. The official language in China is Mandarin, but other dialects, such as Cantonese, are spoken widely. Nader notes that although English is sometimes spoken in academic settings, "the longer you are there, you should make more of an effort to learn the language." The Asia Society has a directory of Chinese language courses at American institutions. Hanyu Online and the Online Confucius Institute offer Web-based courses in Chinese language.

Part of the planning process--and an important step when considering a research experience in China--is connecting with possible host institutions well in advance of the exchange visit. This "connection" process reflects a key aspect of Chinese culture called guanxi, a traditional concept meaning relationship or connection. Establishing a relationship through guanxi requires networking with staff from potential host institutions to gain introductions and build mutual confidences, where both parties get comfortable with each other. Guanxi is a mutual process; any advances you make through guanxi will likely require reciprocation.

Song Yang, a climate scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recommends that people dealing with Chinese institutions start as high as possible in an institution's hierarchy. Yang, who came to the United States from China in 1984 and returned earlier this year for an exchange visit, says that in building these relationships, "top-down is better than bottom-up."


Sources of funding for exchanges with China

Below is a sampling of international exchange funding sources for residents of the United States and Europe.

National Science Foundation

- East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students
This program provides U.S. graduate students in science and engineering with a firsthand introduction to science in China and five other countries in the Asia/Pacific region.

- International Research Fellowship Program (IRFP)
IRFP introduces scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers to international collaborative research opportunities. The program operates in China and other countries.

International Institute of Education: Fulbright Program
This is the exchange program for American students and scholars funded by the U.S. Department of State.

CO-REACH Directory of European funding opportunities
CO-REACH is a network of European science and technology policy and funding organizations that promote research cooperation with China. The group's Web site has a searchable directory of funding opportunities.

Sino-German Center for Research Promotion

- Sino-German Workshops and Symposia
These 3- to 5-day workshops bring together up to 40 specially qualified scientists from China and Germany to stimulate cooperation leading to longer-term collaborations.

- Sino-German Co-operation Groups
This program funds several joint German-Chinese research projects in specified fields.

- Project Funding (in selected fields)
This initiative funds joint German-Chinese research projects that developed out of workshops and in response to specific calls for proposals.

Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

- China Exchange Programme
The China Exchange Programme encourages long-term scientific cooperation through exchange of senior researchers and joint research projects between both countries in all fields of research.

- CAS-KNAW Joint Ph.D. Training Programme
This initiative funds joint research projects between Chinese and Dutch Ph.D. students affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) institutes and Netherlands universities and research institutes.

Royal Society: International Joint Projects
The Royal Society's joint projects provide a mobility grant for researchers to cover travel, subsistence, and research expenses.

British Council
The British Council provides links to its own science exchange funding programs and those of other organizations in the United Kingdom.

Visas and permits

Part of the due diligence recommended by Laing, especially for postdocs and other research scholars, is to verify your employment status with the host institution. The employment status will determine the type of visa assigned by the Chinese embassy in your country. According to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.,

  • A business visa (code F) is assigned to a noncitizen "who is invited to China for a visit, an investigation, a lecture, to do business, scientific-technological and culture exchanges, short-term advanced studies or internship for a period of no more than 6 months."

  • A study visa (code X) is issued to a noncitizen "who comes to China for study, advanced studies or intern practice for a period of more than six months."

  • An employment or work visa (code Z) is issued to someone "who comes to China for a post or employment, and his/her accompanying family members."

  • A tourist or family visa (code L) is issued to a noncitizen "who comes to China for sightseeing or visiting family members/friends."

If the host institution calls you an employee, you must take several steps together with the host institution. The newspaper China Daily (25 October 2006) gives a summary of these steps:

  • Foreigners who want to work in China should first get in touch with a valid Chinese employer who has an employment license for foreigners issued by related labour administrative bureaus.

  • Foreigners with permission to work in China should apply for employment visas at the Chinese embassies.

  • Employers of foreigners should get employment permits for their foreign employees within 15 days after their entry into China by providing related documents.

  • Foreign employees who have received their employment permit should, within 30 days after their entry, apply for a residence permit from local public security bureaus. The term of validity of the residence certificate may be determined in accordance with that of the Employment Permit.

  • Chinese employers and their foreign employees should conclude a contract in line with law. The term of the contract should not exceed five years and such a contract can be renewed.

  • The employment permit of the employed foreigners shall cease to be effective upon the expiration of the term of the labour contract between the foreigner and employer.

(Source: Rules for the Administration of Employment of Foreigners)

The full official text can be found on China's Ministry of Commerce Web site.

If your plans include an extended visit to China, the host institution can help you locate housing. NSF's Nader says this is another occasion that guanxi can help, but individual exchange participants first need to establish a working relationship with the institutions and become as familiar as possible with issues such as housing and family support. The U.S. Fulbright program, for example, gives preference to applicants without dependents and notes on its Web site: "Housing on Chinese campuses and in surrounding areas can be limited, utilitarian, and small. Candidates should be prepared for Spartan living conditions."

Inside Chinese labs and scientific meetings

Work in a Chinese lab will resemble work in labs in the West, but there are differences. In China as in the West, Nader notes, the nature of the work is paramount. "The culture of the discipline will prevail" in Chinese labs, Nader says. Still, the culture of the lab can reflect the character of its leader. "The lab director will be either the old guard or young guys," Nader says. "If they went through the Cultural Revolution [in the 1960s and 1970s], they will have a different lab style" from the less cautious and inhibited researchers who have emerged since that time. One big difference between some Chinese and most Western labs is the attitude toward basic lab supplies and materials. Because of financial pressures, "you will hear colleagues say, 'Don't throw out that pipette! We had to fight hard for this funding,' " Nader says.

Scientific meetings in China are sometimes quite different from those in the West. NOAA's Yang says that in China, "scientific meetings [are] organized in a more formal way," and audiences tend to ask fewer questions than in the West.

Despite the challenges, Yang encourages young scientists in the United States to collaborate with their counterparts in China. "It is important to emphasize the mutual benefits and a win-win approach," says Yang. "We can always learn from each other."

Alan Kotok is managing editor of Science Careers.

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Alan Kotok is managing editor of Careers.