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Dal 1998 al 2003 gli investimenti sono triplicati

Cresce la spesa cinese in ricerca

Le nuove tecnologie del gigante asiatico stanno aprendo una nuova sfera d'influenza

di Andrea Marini - 09 giugno 2005

La spesa cinese in ricerca e sviluppo è più o meno triplicata dal 1998 al 2003. Tuttavia, il Paese impiega ancora solo l’1,2% del proprio Pil in questo settore, (contro il 2,5-3% delle potenze industriali più avanzate), e la sua migliore caratteristica è stata finora quella di avere sul suo territorio un efficiente rete di centri di elaborazioni, ma elaborazioni di stimoli intellettuali provenienti dall’estero.

Come afferma Clive Cookson sul Financial Times*, se il gigante asiatico riuscisse a salire la scala del valore e a innovarsi, le economie occidentali perderebbero il loro ultimo grande vantaggio competitivo. A tremare, insomma, sarebbero quei Paesi che hanno una struttura produttiva basata sull’hi-tech e che finora si sono sentiti al riparo dalla concorrenza cinese. Una concorrenza concentrata nei settori maturi e basata sul basso costo del lavoro.

Per il momento, tuttavia, questo pericolo sembra ancora lontano. Il grande vantaggio della Cina per le altre nazioni è stato quello di costituire un enorme serbatoio da cui attingere scienziati e ingegneri. Le aziende europee e statunitensi non riescono a reclutare uno staff di ricercatoti di alto livello in patria, così si servono della forza lavoro addestrata in Cina, o costruendo centri di ricerca in collaborazione con le aziende locali o con le università.

Il flusso degli scienziati che dagli Stati Uniti e dall’Europa ritornano in patria è comunque ancora basso, ma potrebbe aumentare qualora le condizioni di vita in Cina migliorassero. Inoltre, nel Paese ci sono troppi vincoli burocratici e manca una struttura finanziaria solida in grado di far fruttare a pieno i vantaggi della ricerca scientifica.

Ad ogni modo sedersi sugli allori potrebbe essere pericoloso: chi l’avrebbe mai detto qualche anno fa che i mercati internazionali sarebbero stati inondati dai prodotti cinesi? L’unica soluzione per i Paesi più sviluppati è quella di aumentare la propria spesa in ricerca e sviluppo. Da subito.

* Pubblichiamo il testo integrale dell’articolo

Innovative Asia
By Clive Cookson
Published: June 8 2005 20:40 | Last updated: June 8 2005 20:40

In a finely landscaped technology park on the edge of Bangalore - a world away from the chaos of urban India - sits the John Welch Technology Centre. In the four years since General Electric of the US set up this showpiece of corporate research, its 2,400 scientists and engineers have filed 240 US patents and had 25 granted. Advances range from more efficient aircraft engine designs and a system for GE Capital to predict corporate defaults to “pedestrian-safe” car bumpers that protect people against injury in impacts of up to 40kph.

At another bioscience park outside Beijing, CapitalBio is emerging as a world leader in the new technology of biochips - devices that combine biotechnology and electronics for biological testing and medical diagnostics. The four-year-old company is already selling instruments to US drug companies and last month agreed a partnership with Affymetrix in California, the world’s largest biochip producer.

“Affymetrix had never imagined that there was such a big research effort in biochips in China, working to such a high standard,” says Cheng Jing, CapitalBio’s chief executive.

dozens of similar examples are to be found in Asian science and technology centres. They confirm the impression given by recent headlines - such as news of breakthroughs in therapeutic cloning in South Korea - that several countries in the region are following in Japan’s wake as world-class centres for research and development.

Statistics, albeit incomplete, show a rapid surge in Asia’s research and development investment and scientific output. Thomson ISI, the research analysis company, says the number of “high impact” research papers from China has risen from just 21 in 1994 to 223 in 2003 (a paper’s impact is assessed by the frequency with which it is cited by other researchers). Taking a longer view, China’s contribution to the world’s scientific journals has increased from 0.4 per cent in 1981 to 5.1 per cent (40,000 papers) in 2003.

China’s research and development spending roughly trebled between 1998 and 2003, says Georges Haour, professor of technology management at IMD, the Swiss business school. There is scope for much more growth. China still devotes only 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product to research and development, compared with 2.5-3 per cent for the most successful industrialised countries - a level that South Korea and Singapore have already reached. India’s government plans to lift the country’s research and development investment from below 1 per cent of GDP to at least 2 per cent.

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Some in the west fear Asia’s growing scientific prowess as a new competitive threat. Until now, countries such as China and India have essentially been cheap, efficient processing centres and workshops, for which the intellectual input came ultimately from elsewhere. If they can use science to climb the value chain and innovate effectively, western economies will have lost their last great competitive advantage.

Asian policymakers give short shrift to such arguments. “Fears in the west about the rise of Asian science are very much exaggerated,” says R. A. Mashelkar, the Indian government’s chief scientist. “Particularly in the US, people like to keep themselves on edge with talk of a ‘threat’ but in reality there is none.”

Many western authorities with experience of Asian science agree. Lord Sainsbury, the UK science minister, says that “people who claim that China is making unbelievable progress and will soon have the biggest high-technology businesses in the world” should remember the panic in the 1980s about the rise of Japan’s high-technology industry. “We thought then that Japan had some sort of magic formula not given to the rest of us,” says Lord Sainsbury, “but the formula turned out not to exist.”

Asia’s greatest overall advantage is its huge supply of scientists and engineers, particularly in China and India, at a time when students in the west are turning away from science and engineering. Companies in the US and Europe that find it hard to recruit top-quality research staff at home can exploit Asia’s trained workforce by building research and development centres there or collaborating with Asian companies and universities.

The European Union alone has 700,000 fewer scientists and engineers than it needs to meet its target of devoting 3 per cent of GDP to research and development, says Davinder Brar, chairman of GVK Bio, a fast-growing research services company in the Indian city of Hyderabad. “Faced with such a shortage, Europe may try to import talent - but why should Indians and Chinese move to Europe when living conditions at home are improving rapidly? The west can outsource the research to places such as India and China,” he says.

Asia’s other big advantage is cost. Western companies will never admit that they are doing research there just because it is cheaper. They say it offers intellectual resources that are not available at home. But lower costs help too. “Our strength is that we can deliver more intellectual power per dollar spent than anywhere else in the world,” Dr Mashelkar says.

The relative costs of doing research in Asia vary enormously according to circumstances, however. Vijay Batra, head of drug development at Ranbaxy, the largest Indian pharmaceutical company, says a three-month pre-clinical toxicology study on one compound might cost $850,000 in the US and as little as $100,000 in India. For clinical development, Indian costs might be one-fifth of those in the west.

In electronics and software development, the cost differential is smaller. Gopal Krishna, general manager of the engineering centre recently set up in Bangalore by AMD, the US microprocessor company, says costs in India used to be one-third of those in the US - “but they are going up fast and are perhaps half those in the US now”.

The pay of newly graduated researchers in India and China is generally around one-quarter of US levels. For more senior staff, it is usually at least half the US level and in exceptional cases may even exceed it. In Beijing, Mr Cheng says CapitalBio “made a special effort at the beginning to attract [Chinese expatriates] from abroad, with salary and stock options. We offered at least to match the salaries that senior scientists were receiving [in the US]; the highest we offered was $120,000 a year. We no longer do this but we still have a very flexible compensation policy to motivate people.”

Neither India nor China keeps reliable figures on the emigration or return of their scientists. There is probably still a net outflow from both countries and moving back can be hard for researchers and their families (see below). But it is clear that Indian and Chinese scientists who have returned after studying and working in the west have played a vital role in revitalising research in their countries.

Laboratories’ preference in Asia for recruiting researchers with overseas experience, though, illustrates a key weakness of Asian science: Asian universities are generally not up to western standards in their teaching or research, even though student entry is extremely competitive. Their laboratories are often poorly equipped.

Even in South Korea, the region’s high technology superstar, there are complaints about declining academic standards and students’ loss of interest in hard science. “The quality of our science and engineering graduates seems to be deteriorating,” says Kim Chuljin, head of corporate technology strategy at Samsung Electronics. “With students from Korean universities we have to invest more time in on-the-job training than with those who have studied overseas.”

Such views led the government last year to bring in a controversial outsider - Robert Laughlin, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Stanford University in California - to shake up the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology.

Another problem is that, despite Asia’s huge output of scientists, there is little original research. Korea has gone furthest along the Japanese path of developing companies and products with global reach but no one pretends that original research has had much part in success so far. “We succeeded above all because we were so active in introducing new ideas and technologies from overseas,” says Mr Kim.

While Asia is strong in electronics, computing and software engineering – and also in chemistry - the life sciences are generally weak in the region. Governments are making a particular effort to catch up in this field, which many believe will become the most important technology during the 21st century. “We are investing now because, by the time the growth potential becomes apparent to everyone, it will be too late to catch up,” says Tan Chorh Chuan, vice-chairman of A-star, Singapore’s science funding agency, which is concentrating its spending on the biomedical sciences.

So far, Asia has been able to make a global mark only in a few new areas of the life sciences where western expertise is not entrenched. The obvious example is stem cell technology, where not only South Korea but also China, Singapore and India are racing ahead – helped by a general social and political acceptance of human embryo research that contrasts with the bitter debate in many western countries.

Such breakthroughs aside, civil servants and company executives throughout Asia lament a failure to innovate. “Our biggest problem is the weakness of the country’s innovative capability,” says Zhou Yuan, a senior official in China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. “Although we have a few good companies, the core technology in Chinese industry generally comes from outside China.”

Related to the lack of scientific innovation is the absence of a risk-taking entrepreneurial culture, which is reflected in turn in a shortage of venture capital to fund companies spun out of research laboratories or universities. Lam Kong-Peng, director of Singapore’s Biomedical Research Council, talks of the need “to educate Asian investors, who tend to be more cautious than western investors”.

“We are trying to create a new risk-taking culture of innovation and entrepreneurship,” agrees Jackie Yi-Ru Ying, director of Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. Venture capitalists in Asia “do not have the experience or the interest in getting involved in early-stage seed funding”.

Although Asian governments strongly support growth in science and technology – and plan substantial increases in research and development spending – there are many complaints about bureaucratic procedures that hamper progress, particularly in the life sciences. In India and China, for example, executives say regulators take longer to approve clinical trials than in the west.

“We have undertaken [early-stage] clinical trials in the UK because we can get approval faster there than in India,” says Brian Tempest, chief executive of Ranbaxy. “India is moving in the right direction but there is a long way still to go.”

Such obstacles show that Asia is not yet as competitive in its scientific capabilities as is sometimes believed. Janez Potocnik, the EU’s research commissioner, says that, rather than being a threat, Asia offers a scientific opportunity to the rest of the world. “There are many challenges that we all face - and instead of reacting in a protectionist way, we should welcome Asia’s growing scientific resources and work with them,” he says.

For many in Asia, indeed, innovation is not just helpful in breaking into foreign markets but essential in improving lives closer to home. There is recognition that the only way to overcome the continent’s many problems, from poverty to pollution, is through science and technology.

Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, says that even space programmes - sometimes regarded as a sign of national vanity - justify themselves by improving quality of life through earth observation and communications satellites. “Our main aim is to bring the benefits of high technology to the people - and poor people in particular,” he says.


The recent technological renaissance of India and China owes a lot to researchers who have returned home after spending years abroad, usually in the US. There are professional and emotional reasons for going back: reviving a career that has stalled, being reunited with elderly parents or contributing to the development of one’s homeland. But repatriation often carries an emotional cost.

“The company needed scientific leadership and I felt I could provide it,” says Chen Shuhui, who returned to China in 2003 after 18 years in the US to become chief scientist of WuXi Pharmatech in Shanghai. “The big disadvantage is separation from my family.”

“My children, who are eight and 10 years old, are living with my in-laws in the US to stay in American schools. We keep in touch by e-mail and I go back to see them every two or three months,” says Mr Chen. “It is tough but everything in life has a price.”

Zhao Guoping, director of the Chinese National Human Genome Centre in Shanghai, says reluctance to split the family in this way is the biggest single impediment to repatriation. “More and more Chinese want to come back - the limitation is their kids,” says Dr Zhao. “If the children are high school students in the US, they cannot adapt to Chinese schools.”

Indians may be able to find good English-language schools in Bangalore or Hyderabad but it is still hard to take school-age children away from the only lifestyle they have known. “So many of my friends want to come back,” says Guru Ganesan, who runs the Bangalore engineering research centre of ARM, the UK-based chip design company. “But if they have kids, they may be worried about health and education here - and commit themselves initially to come back just for two or three years.”

While children are an impediment to returning, the Asian reverence for elderly parents exerts a powerful pull. Prof Zhao, whose parents were about 90 when he came back to Shanghai after 10 years in the US, says: “I was able to see my father for three years and my mother for five before they died, so I felt I had been a good son.”

Vijay Batra returned to India in 2004 as head of drug development for Ranbaxy, the Indian pharmaceutical group, after 35 years in the US. “My parents, who are still living here [in India], did not believe I would ever come back,” he says. “You need family support to return - you cannot do it for professional reasons alone.”

Robert Laughlin, president of the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology, who has extensive contacts among the Asian scientific community in California, says Chinese scientists and engineers often return home to make more money. “Glass ceilings” in many American companies and other organisations make it very hard for Asians to take the most senior jobs, he adds.

The pull of an improving scientific job market and standards of living in India and China is reinforced by the push of more negative factors in the US. Besides resentment at the new visa requirements imposed after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, there is a more general feeling that the US is becoming less welcoming to foreigners. “I have had a big increase in job applications from the US since the re-election of President Bush,” says an Indian research and development manager.

Adverse social and political factors back home can put off would-be returnees. Some Chinese are reluctant - or even frightened - to return to their home country’s repressive political atmosphere, though they would not say so in public. “I cannot say anything because I am on the authorities’ watch list and I still have family in China,” says a semiconductor researcher in the US.

Some Indian expatriates complain of their native country’s noise, heat, corruption and poverty. “The country’s economic growth seems just to be increasing the gap between rich and poor,” says a disenchanted IT executive.

Whatever the reasons for staying put, there is a huge pool of Asian scientists and engineers working in the west. Dr Zhao says that, of about 400 Chinese scientists who studied in the US during the 1980s under the prestigious China–US Biochemistry Examinations Application programme, he is one of only six to have returned home. “Almost all of them are still in the US - which helps explain why the US has the best scientific resources in the world,” he says.

A series of articles in the Business Life pages will look further at the strengths and weaknesses of Asian science and technology.

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Terza Repubblica è il quotidiano online fondato e diretto da Enrico Cisnetto nato nel 2005 dall'esperienza di Società Aperta con l'obiettivo di creare uno spazio di commento indipendente e fuori dal coro sul contesto politico-economico del paese.