randombio.com | science commentary
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Chinese are coming!

Scientific research from China was once of dismal quality. Now they could surpass the United States by 2025.

F ifteen years ago, there were few if any scientific papers coming from China. They did science there; there were Chinese language journals, but the quality of their research was of dismal quality compared to that published in European and American journals.

An example was a paper I translated at work. Our corporate partner was submitting a document to the FDA. One of the obligations of a drug company is to find every scrap of information that exists on the drug's toxicity. If you miss one, the FDA gets very, very angry.

The paper, from a journal called Carcinogenesis, Teratogenesis & Mutagenesis, was full of errors and inconsistencies. Just to give one example, in several places they used milligrams per kilogram where they meant micrograms per kilogram. Their Ames test results were a mess. The industry guys couldn't make head or tail of it. They asked me to email the authors, but the paper was ten years old and they had moved on.

Now researchers in Chinese institutions are publishing top-quality papers in English-language journals.

Biomedical publications per year
Biomedical publications per year from the USA, China, Japan, and the UK indexed in the US National Library of Medicine. Papers from the USA prior to 1995 were corrected for the NCBI's change from listing by individual US states to a country code. The jumps at 2013 and 2014 were due to additional changes in how authors were indexed. Publication counts by country before 1988 are not considered reliable. Source: NCBI

I recently purchased a book—mainly because it was 90% off; scientific books routinely cost $200–300 these days—written in almost impeccable English, on a cutting edge scientific topic, that demonstrates what America is facing. Its title is Advance in Structural Bioinformatics by Wei, Xu, Zhao, and Dai. Okay, the English is not 100% perfect, but it's not much worse than that of many of my colleagues. Here is the only ungrammatical sentence I could find:

Most above introduced progress in RNA folding problem were obtained for in vitro systems, while in cells, RNAs are surrounded by many other macromolecules.

The Chinese government has put enormous effort into recruiting Western-educated researchers back to their homeland and building up their country's research programs. The graph at right shows that this effort is now paying off. The NLM collects all biomedical journals it considers to be scientifically valuable, regardless of language. In 1996 they indexed 52.8 times as many papers from the USA as from China. In 2012, that number had decreased to 2.95. By 2025 the lines will cross. It may be only a matter of time before American scientists will be forced to write their articles in Chinese and submit them to a Chinese publisher in order to get into a good journal.

It is true the same was once said of Japan. But Japan now does science on par with the West. It's only their smaller numbers that put Japanese-language journals at a disadvantage.

Of course, scientists welcome this new batch of researchers and applaud the often excellent work they're doing. At the same time, it highlights the failings in our own system and underscores the desperate need for improve­ment. Failure to do so will be to cede dominance in a critical infrastructure to a foreign country.


It is sometimes said that science done under a communist dictatorship is inherently inferior because the government stifles freedom of thought and expression, which hampers innovation. Indeed, communist states have a grim history of massacring anyone who thinks independently.

Criticizing the government within China is still risky, and strong barriers prevent citizens from accessing Western ideas. Yet we Westerners are not as free as we used to be. Our Internet companies now censor political ideas they disagree with. If I were to write, as a group of Chinese researchers recently did, that men are genetically disposed to have a better sense of humor than women, I would lose my job and be subjected to fierce abuse. Then there is the topic of race and IQ, which is forbidden for us to discuss. Not so in China. Freedom under communism has not risen Western levels, but thanks to political correctness, freedom in the West is sinking to communist levels.

Another myth is that America is more innovative because we accepted immigrants or because we take greater risks or because of our Protestant ethic. None of that is true. The West became great in science not because we were more creative or worked longer hours; we became more creative mainly because we were wealthier and we recognized the value of science.

As for freedom, our government has us under constant surveillance. Who can say that 40 years from now what you say today won't be used to bring down your life and career, or even, as happens in Canada and Europe, smack you in jail? I remember when Americans would say “It's a free country!” I haven't heard anyone say that in years.


In the USA, overall NIH funding rates are around 11%. Rates for beginning researchers are closer to 5%. This means scientists who once would have had a 50% chance of succeeding in their careers now find the odds are one in twenty. Most will gravitate to industry, perhaps doing research there but more likely doing analytical work or methods development. The trend in industry is to outsource their research to academics and startups, then come in and scoop up whatever looks promising.


When I last worked in academia years ago, the atmosphere was one of dedication to curing diseases and discovering important facts about nature. Last year I returned. The difference is depressing. It's now crawling with bureaucrats who couldn't care less whether anyone discovers something or not, and administrators who only care about expanding their empire.

The system is set up for for the convenience of the bureaucrats, not research. All purchasing goes through them, and orders get placed only once a week. Research staff often find themselves sitting around idle for days at a time, waiting for the bureaucrats to click that little button on their PC that sends the orders to the vendor.

Bureaucrats show up almost daily in our lab with their clipboards and lists of new rules. On many occasions the first we hear about the new rule is when we get nailed for having broken it. Often the rules are contradictory. One of my colleagues got slapped with one rule saying that rabbits could not be held in a certain location, and another rule that said rabbits had to be held in that location. The purpose of these conflicting rules was not to protect the rabbits (which have a pretty good and long life), but to assert the bureaucrats' power.

I've made some significant discoveries since I got here, but it's depressing. Everyone here walks on eggshells trying to avoid saying anything that could be used against them. I'm seriously considering retiring early and not bothering to publish any of it. I've become convinced that my fellow citizens don't really want us to cure any diseases.

What is in the future?

China has many problems, but they have escaped the corrosive pretentiousness of multicult­uralism. They are also fiercely nationalistic. A loss of dominance of science will have cascading effects throughout society:

What struck me most on my return to academia is how cut off from reality everyone is, and how fake their behavior seems. Those inside the university don't realize that outsiders consider it to be a malignant octopus whose goal is to grab space and territory, regardless of the effects on the surrounding community, and fill it with administrators and Gender Studies Centers.

These 'crats don't come out of thin air. Their existence is justified by the rules imposed on them by the feds. Thanks to HIPAA, copying our data from one computer to another is clumsy and slow. Thanks to the NRC, labs have mostly abandoned using isotopes in their experiments. Thanks to the EPA, we're starting to avoid experiments that might involve chemicals.

The staff makes fun of the rules: how are we supposed to do bookkeeping on radioactive molecules that no longer exist? How do we do chemistry experiments without chemicals? We make jokes about HIPAA-compliant sneakernet and the hours spent writing and rewriting animal protocols that we keep active because it takes so long to get a new one.

These rules are supposed to make people safe. But there is a cost: you won't die from a violation of HIPAA, but you can surely die from the diseases that we are not going to cure. It seems this is a trade-off Americans are willing to make.

nov 29, 2017, 5:57 am

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