Redrawing the Map

In the world of scientific research, the Falkland Islands are larger than Canada, and France is larger than Russia. The most impressive of all is China, which dwarfs the entire continent of Africa.

As seen in a density-equalizing map created by World Mapper, the global distribution of growth in scientific research is extremely disproportionate. The disproportionate distribution of scientific research development has redrawn the global boundaries of the world. Since 1990, China has emerged as one of the biggest producers of scientific research. By 2001, the amount of scientific research produced by China rivaled that of the United States. In terms of growth in scientific research, China has surpassed the U.S.

According to a report in The Telegraph, China will most likely replace the United States as the leading producer in scientific research papers by 2020. The growth of scientific research in China is not surprising given the rapid development of China in the past few decades.

Since the economic reforms in the 1970s, which scholar Sheying Chen has argued to be the beginning of a decades-long process, the Chinese economy has grown tremendously and provided the country with the necessary funding to finance its science industry. According to The World Bank, the real Gross Domestic Product growth of China is one of the highest amongst developing countries and surpasses that of some developed countries.

The warp-speed economic growth experienced by China doubtlessly has provided China with ample resources to invest in scientific research and education. In fact, according to a report prepared by scholar R. Edward Grumbne, China is predicted to become the largest economy in the world by the year 2035. Economic development alone, however, is an insufficient explanation of the rapid growth of scientific research in China. Neither does the emphasis on technical education alone sufficiently explain this phenomenon.

The extraordinary progress in scientific research in China is a vivid example of the strategic application of what economist Justin Yifu Lin called backwardness in Chinese technological knowledge. According to Lin, backwardness refers to the gap between the quality of scientific research performed different countries.

Not long ago, China was years behind technologically advanced countries like the U.S., but having started technological development after everyone else gave China the opportunity to watch and learn from others.

China’s strategic use of its late start in technological development has allowed it to determine which research strategies are effective by analyzing the research methods of other countries.

In addition, China has utilized its backwardness to observe the discoveries made by others to propel itself forward instead of undergoing a painstakingly long process of trial and error in scientific research. This not only saves China an enormous amount of time but also a lot of money.

In his research, Lin highlights the nuclear bomb tests in the 1960s and the satellite launches in the 1970s as evidence of rapid development in technology in China. By having the option to reverse-engineer and buy information from others as opposed to starting from scratch, China has been able to fast-forward technological development.

The consequences of the fast development of scientific research in China are economic and political. As China becomes the world leader in scientific research, it will also become the global center of scientific innovation. Businesses in the technology industries will no doubt shift their focus to China and in the process they will bring with them high-paying jobs. This will not only improve the standard of living in the country but also attract more foreign investment in China.

The political impact of this phenomenon will be crucial. Tensions will most likely rise between China and previous leaders in scientific research as relations between China and many developed countries are currently tense.

For example, reports of Chinese engineered cyber-attacks on U.S. institutions have instilled unease among the public. According to The Wall Street Journal, a cyber-attack from China breached the defenses of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and jeopardized sensitive information in the system. Reports of cyber-attacks on private firms and individuals have also been made, thus not only the security of the government but also that of the public may be in question.

The technological advancement of China will only worsen speculations of the potential of Chinese cyber-attacks. It is expected that increased weariness and paranoia among current leaders in technological development will lead to policy changes toward China, though it is uncertain exactly how those policies would change. The most probable change might be an increase in cyber security measures.

A much more immediate threat, however, lies in physical security. Technological advancements in China will most likely lead to the development of better weaponry. While it is unlikely that China will embark on an arms race with the U.S. or the European Union, it is probable that the presence of advanced national defense measures in China will be enough to pose as a challenge to developed states and prompt countries like the U.S to respond.

There are numerous implications of China becoming the world leader in scientific research, but it is most unlikely that current leaders in scientific research as well as countries that are scientifically backwards will be able to develop like China.

One reason for this is path dependency. Path dependency is the impact that an initial set of decisions, such as those in economics or politics, can have on the availability of future decisions. Historical precedents have created path dependency in those countries. As a result, they are not the same as China and therefore cannot simply achieve the same progress by making the same decisions as China.

For example, South Africa is extremely backwards technologically, but it cannot simply develop in the same way that China has because South Africa lacks the financial and material resources that China has. The historical background of South Africa is also extremely different from that of China, thus South Africa has been shaped to be a state with paths different from those of China.

As a result, countries that are considered technologically backwards, namely those in Africa, South America and Eastern Europe, cannot seek a quick solution. Unless those countries are able to acquire the resources and conditions that foster sustainable development in scientific research, they will remain technologically inferior.
The U.S. rose to become the top producer in scientific research—approximately the same output as that of all of Western Europe—for as many reasons as China has been rising through the ranks in research output, but the most obvious reason was probably the devastation that the Second World War brought to potential competitors to the U.S. Following the fatigue from the global conflict, the Cold War spurred scientific development in the U.S. by making scientific research a matter of prestige and national pride.

The most obvious reason for the growth in research in Western Europe, on the other hand, is its historical precedence in science. For centuries, Western Europe has been the heart of the exchange of scientific discoveries. Such has fostered institutions that fueled scientific development. There is little that the U.S. and Europe can do to prevent China from surpassing them because the interconnectedness of the globalized world makes it impossible to limit China’s access to research findings in the U.S. and in Europe.

The interconnectedness among countries, however, will also limit the degree to which China can benefit from the advantage of its technological backwardness. Once China has reached the same level of research output, it will have exhausted most of the foreign sources of innovation that it can tap into and utilize to its advantage.

According to Lin, the success from the implementation of the backwardness strategy is sustained by the implementation of policies that not only promote the growth of new industries but also the preservation and transformation of existing ones. According to Lin, the strong emphasis on modernization in developing countries often leads to the neglect of existing economic actors and their impact on the economy. Developing countries like India, which have not reached the stage where China is at in terms of development but has the potential to do so, should reassess the trajectory upon which they have planned their development.

Both countries that are less affluent than China and those that have the adequate resources for scientific development can benefit from analyzing development in China. Even though not all countries will achieve the same kind of growth that China has, they can still improve their current policies.

Policy makers cannot simply adopt the model of the China economy as it is. Instead, they must implement policies that account for the ways in which existing institutions can be advantageous or disadvantageous to sustainable economic development.

Development in all areas, whether it is in domestic scientific research or international trade, can only be maximized by the pursuit of feasible objectives and policies that have been tailored to make the most of the specialties of each country.

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