Academic calls for research focus

Updated: 2016-08-26 08:43

By Cecily Liu(China Daily Europe)

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Internationally renowned Chinese scientist says the nation must concentrate on basics to strengthen economy

China needs to focus on basic research and development in order to develop as a strong nation with a knowledge economy, says Max Lu, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey in southern England.

The new focus on research efficiency in China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), as well as the increasing realization by private firms that they must focus on developing technology, should be the new impetus to help the country become innovative and a technology leader, says Lu, a pre-eminent chemical engineer. He also is a nanotechnologist who was the first Chinese to become the head of the University of Queensland in Australia.

Academic calls for research focus

Max Lu says China's scientific ambitions are immense, but its areas of research strength have yet to be fully optimized. Cecily Liu / China Daily

"As China shifts its economic development model away from labor intensive growth to high value-added services-led growth, the country will benefit greatly from increasing science and technology investment," he says.

"China's number of research publications, as well as its quality and citations and patent registrations, are all accelerating. At the same time, challenges still exist in terms of investing in basic science and also in the translation of research into practical applications."

In 2015, China filed 2.87 million patents, four times as many as it did in 2008. It also put the country on top in patent filings globally, a position it has held for 14 consecutive years.

China spends about 5 percent of its research funding on basic research, which is far behind most developed countries, which on average spend about 30 percent on basic science, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Basic science refers to research at the primary stages, such as mathematics, biology and physics.

Lu says one key reason behind China's lack of efficiency in translating research into practical and useful technology is that its rapid economic growth over the past 30 years has made it easy for companies to make money without truly leading innovation.

"To become a true superpower, China must rely on innovation to achieve and sustain her healthy economic development. The nation's future focus should be less about quick wins and more about achieving long-term strategic goals."

China's scientific ambitions are immense, but its areas of research strength have yet to be fully optimized, he says.

But Lu says this situation is changing because innovation is greatly needed in the knowledge economy China is trying to create. Internationalization has brought fresh opportunities to Chinese firms and universities for international collaboration in research and innovation.

Lu proposes three key areas where China's research collaboration with international partners can make a big difference, which he terms "fuel, heal and feed the world", explaining these are areas of challenge that face China and all other countries alike.

Fuel the world refers to developing environmentally sustainable and renewable energy sources. Heal the world refers to reducing and recovering environmental damage, and also finding innovative solutions to tackle healthcare challenges of a growing and aging population. Feed the world refers to improving food availability and sustainability, as well as alleviating poverty.

As a leading academic in engineering, Lu already has contributed to China's science and technology policymaking. Last year, he was invited by the Chinese Science and Technology Ministry to review China's seventh mid- to long-term science and technology plan, as one member of a 12-person international panel.

Lu says he sees China's research and innovation policies are heading in the right direction, and one example is the increasing focus on peer review in the process of allocating research grants, as opposed to having grants decided by government officials.

Another improvement Lu sees as particularly helpful is the growing flexibility in the way funding is allocated and managed. Previously funding for scientific research was allocated within a rigid structure in which only a certain amount of funding could be allocated each year, so that scholars felt an obligation to fully spend the amount allocated each year, leading to waste. Academics now have more flexibility when they receive funding across multiple years.

Lu says he thinks further changes can be implemented to bring greater impact, and in particular increasing government spending on basic science will help. This can be achieved through direct investment or incentive schemes to encourage private sector investment.

Meanwhile, Lu says China's private businesses are also becoming increasingly innovative. Tech giants have been known to be fast adaptors, but they are now embracing innovation to commercialize new ideas and use them to raise market share and profits, he says. This is shown by the proportion of engineers within companies, and the amount of investment they spend on R&D.

"They are all investing heavily because they realize if they do not invest more in R&D, they will be left behind and other firms will take over."

The benefits of cross-border research collaboration and commercialization of the research results can be great, especially considering China already has leading innovations in certain areas that can be shared with global partners to achieve greater impact, Lu says. Examples of such leading Chinese technologies include high-performance computing, material science, graphene, solar energy, Chinese medicine and rail engineering.

China's development of a fourth-generation nuclear reactor is strong, as China has invested heavily in the sector, and last year a deal was signed for Chinese nuclear technology to be deployed in the British nuclear power project at Bradwell, with China General Nuclear Power Group leading the project.

Lu says there are tremendous benefits in combining China's research strength with trade in sectors like nuclear energy and high-speed trains. He also says cross-border collaboration in many areas can benefit greatly from government-sponsored research collaboration that is concurrent with commercial collaborations.

Already, the University of Surrey is heading flagship collaboration projects with China. One example is Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei's participation as a founding member and industry partner in the University of Surrey's 5G Innovation Centre, where it has invested 5 million pounds ($6.5 million; 5.8 million euros) and provided expertise and equipment for testing.

The center, launched in 2013, focuses on developing a common standard for 5G technology, to reduce the risk of fragmentation, meaning that individual industries can better benefit from the integration of 5G.

Lu, born in 1963 in Jilin province, northern China, completed his first degree in metallurgical engineering at Northeastern University in China, where he also earned a master's. He started his doctoral degree at the University of Queensland in 1987. After completing his PhD, Lu spent three years in Singapore as a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University, and then joined the University of Queensland faculty in 1994.

He was recognized among Australia's top 100 most influential engineers in 2013 and has published over 500 peer-reviewed articles in top journals, attracting more than 31,000 citations.

Prior to joining the University of Surrey, he was provost and senior vice-president at Queensland, received a Queensland Greats Award in 2013 and won the inaugural Australia-China Achievement Award (Education) in 2014.

He says he chose the area of nanotechnology as it was a natural continuation from his first degree in material science and engineering. He says hard work helped, but also important are the opportunities that came along, and a supportive environment for him to achieve great goals.


Max Lu

President and vice-chancellor, University of Surrey

Age: 52

Place of birth: Jilin province, China


Bachelor's in metallurgical engineering, Northeastern University, China, 1983

Master's in thermal engineering, Northeastern University, 1986

Doctorate in chemical engineering, University of Queensland, Australia, 1991


Taught at Northeastern University, 1986-87

Taught at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 1991

Professor, University of Queensland, 1994-2009

Vice-chancellor (research), University of Queensland, 2009-2013

Provost, University of Queensland, 2014-16

2016 to date: President and vice-chancellor, University of Surrey, UK, 2016 onwards

Favorite book: Pride and Prejudice, "the first novel I read in English, best read in modern literature".

Film: The Sound of Music, the most beautiful and elegant movie in every sense

Music: High Mountains and Flowing Water, because it is the oldest Chinese classic music with beautiful balance of the yin and yang, the harmony of nature

Food: Shanghai steamed dumplings, uniquely delicious

( China Daily European Weekly 08/26/2016 page32)