Grow­ing army of en­gi­neers helps China gain the up­per hand

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By ANDREW MOODY

an­drew­moody@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Max von Zedtwitz be­lieves the Chi­nese may not only be the first to land a man on Mars, but also the first to cure cancer.

The manag­ing di­rec­tor of GLO­RAD, a re­search and devel­op­ment think tank, said the sheer num­ber of science and en­gi­neer­ing grad­u­ates be­ing churned out by Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties could dra­mat­i­cally speed up the process of in­no­va­tion.

While it took 200 years to move from the steam en­gine to the In­ter­net, there could be ma­jor break­throughs in what are now con­sid­ered fron­tiers of science in just a mat­ter of decades, he said.

“In­no­va­tion is to some ex­tent a num­bers game. If you just have one idea per 1,000 peo­ple, then a coun­try that has a 1.4 bil­lion pop­u­la­tion is go­ing to have an ad­van­tage over any­one else.”

Von Zedtwitz, who was speak­ing in the busi­ness lounge of the Sof­i­tel Wanda Ho­tel in Bei­jing, had come from the United States to pro­mote his new book, Cre­ated in China: How China is Be­com­ing a Global In­no­va­tor, which he co-wrote with Ge­orges Haour, a pro­fes­sor of tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion man­age­ment at the IMD Busi­ness School in Switzer­land.

Al­though now based in San Fran­cisco, the 46-year-old Swiss is no stranger to China, with GLO­RAD be­ing partly based in Shang­hai, and he has spent a large part of the past decade as as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of in­no­va­tion man­age­ment at Ts­inghua Univer­sity in Bei­jing.

“What we wanted to get across in the book was the im­pact of all the agents and ac­tors in­volved in in­no­va­tion in China, in­clud­ing the gov­ern­ment, the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and the com­pa­nies. Out­side China, all the fo­cus is on the big com­pa­nies like Huawei and Alibaba that are global lead­ers, but what is not al­ways seen is the role smaller com­pa­nies are now play­ing in in­no­va­tion.”

The book points out that China is to in­crease five­fold the pro­por­tion of GDP it de­votes to in­no­va­tion from 0.5 per­cent in 1995 to 2.5 per­cent by 2020. This will in­volve the need for 3.7 mil­lion sci­en­tists work­ing in re­search and devel­op­ment. The fig­ure is the same as the Euro­pean level, 2 per­cent — even though the EU set a tar­get of 3 per­cent in 2007.

This has re­sulted in a 17 per­cent an­nual in­crease in patents since 2005, with ap­pli­ca­tions reach­ing 2 mil­lion in 2014, three times as many as that of the United States, al­though im­por­tantly, a smaller pro­por­tion re­lates to higher-qual­ity in­ven­tion patents.

Cur­rently, 31 per­cent of un­der­grad­u­ate de­grees in China are in en­gi­neer­ing com­pared with 5 per­cent in the US, and by 2030 the coun­try aims to have 200 mil­lion col­lege grad­u­ates.

“There is def­i­nitely a race go­ing on, and I don’t think the West has ac­tu­ally caught up with the sever­ity of that race. China is open­ing up a new in­ter­na­tional front in the area of in­no­va­tion. Be­cause peo­ple mat­ter so much in the race, the more peo­ple you have, the bet­ter you are at it.”

Von Zedtwitz be­lieves one of the cutting-edge ar­eas could be in find­ing a cure for cancer.

“Cancer is a big is­sue in China be­cause of fears of the im­pact of the en­vi­ron­ment on peo­ple’s health. Be­cause of the size of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, many more peo­ple are go­ing to be dy­ing of cancer in China than any­where else.

“There are also go­ing to be a lot of re­sources de­voted in China to dis­eases that af­fect older peo­ple such as Alzheimer’s, Parkin­son’s dis­ease and car­dio­vas­cu­lar ill­nesses be­cause China’s pop­u­la­tion is ag­ing fast. I think med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy will be a cutting-edge area for China.”

Von Zedtwitz said it would be wrong to ex­pect in­stant break­throughs be­cause the lead time for sci­en­tific devel­op­ment can of­ten be be­tween 30 and 40 years.

He cited Tu Youyou, the Chi­nese phar­ma­cist who was jointly awarded the No­bel Prize in phys­i­ol­ogy and medicine last year for de­vel­op­ing the anti-malar­ial drug artemisinin. She be­gan work in this area in the late 1960s, but the drug only be­came avail­able in the mid­dle of the last decade, even­tu­ally sav­ing millions of lives.

“A break­through dis­cov­ery gen­er­ally takes about 30 years, cer­tainly in terms of bring­ing it to mar­ket. So what we are do­ing now in terms of re­search and devel­op­ment might not have any im­pact un­til 2046.”

Many be­lieve that China is likely to be the first to land a man on Mars by, ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, 2060. The re­turn jour­ney is ex­pected to take at least 21 months.

“I wouldn’t be sur­prised if China gets there first. Those who go may have to do so with­out the prospect of com­ing back. Even I, if I was 20 years older with 10 or 15 years left to live, might want to go and live on Mars. Why not?”

WANG ZHUANGFEI / CHINA DAILY

Max von Zedtwitz

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