Will China dominate science?

Taikonauts, pig eyes and the dark side of the moon

While the US President is morally dismantling his country's science and therefore wants to reduce expenditure by a total of around 17 percent, the Chinese state has recently been investing a huge amount of money in research. In 2000 China spent about as much money on research and development as France, today it is on a par with the entire European Union and in a few years it will also overtake the USA.

More than 1.5 million Chinese scientists are now producing so many articles that only the USA can show more publications worldwide. The best Chinese universities continue to rise in global rankings and some institutes have earned a unique status.

Spending a lot of money on research does not, however, mean being able to deliver success. However, a study by the University of Michigan comes to the conclusion that China's enormous financial aid for research and development is showing the first noticeable effects.

In absolute numbers, investments in research and development appear enormous at an amount of 407 billion euros, but in relation to the population they are only mediocre. Therefore, China has great potential to develop into a front runner in the field of science. The biggest obstacle will be the internationalization of science. Chinese scientists are less networked with other colleagues from abroad. While most of the new developments in the West are driven by international research teams and benefit from the heterogeneous way of working, Chinese researchers often stay among themselves. There are therefore still opportunities to improve the research atmosphere in China.

Large Chinese projects

In 2016, China erected a huge radio telescope in a natural crater. The builders who finished it looked like ants next to the giant mirrored plate. It has a diameter of over 500 meters and its dimensions are larger than the largest radio telescope in the world in Puerto Rico, which measures "only" 305 meters. While some telescopes, such as the Hubble telescope, function like a large eye and capture the light of the universe, a radio telescope works like a giant ear and can receive radio waves from far away areas of space.

China's new telescope is so powerful that it takes science to a new level. The aim of the project is to gain new knowledge about the formation of the universe, to discover new stars and extraterrestrial life.

Of course, a project of this size also has disadvantages. Villages within a five kilometer radius are no longer allowed to use radio waves. Anything that could interfere with the telescope must be turned off. This includes cellular communications and WiFi networks. This affects several thousand people. The Chinese state party has offered residents financial compensation to move to the city, but some consider the offer to be unfair.

The pig's eye

Those who had eye problems in China used to get new corneas from prison inmates sentenced to death. Today this practice is no longer common. Instead, China has invested 150 million euros to find out how animal corneas can be transplanted into a human eye. Chinese researchers from Shenzhen worked on it for ten years. They discovered that the cornea of ​​pigs most closely resembles that of humans.

However, the transplant is complicated. In order for the human body to adopt a new body part, it must be adapted to it. Therefore, the scientists strip off the cells of the pigs. They remove the animal DNA, proteins and lipids. The goal is to remove anything that could cause the patient's body to reject the foreign tissue beforehand. If everything goes well, the foreign tissue, which looks like a contact lens, will be repopulated by the human cells.

The procedure has not yet been well researched, so far only 200 successful operations have been performed. The previous success rate, however, is already 90 percent. No other country in the world is able to perform this operation.

At the bottom of the Mariana Trench

The lowest point on earth is in the Mariana Trench. It is located about 11,000 meters below the sea surface. So far only two people have dived this deep. China wants to change that. The University of Shanghai is currently experimenting with a private company called "Rainbowfish" on a submarine that will allow three people to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench at the same time. The streamlined submarine is about ten meters long and surrounded by a thick metal shell.

The research team is still looking for the optimal materials that have to be particularly resistant. In 2019 the submarine is expected to reach the lowest point on earth.

As long as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not resolved, the experiment looks as if the Chinese wanted to secure a military advantage there. The researchers generally reject this and are therefore looking for international cooperation partners.

From their point of view, the area that will be developed in the future could be used for various peaceful purposes, such as for oil and gas production, underwater tourism and for further exploration of the deep sea.

The dark side of the moon

American astronauts may have flown to the moon and the Soviets carried out unmanned flights there. But both nations have always landed on the earth-facing side. This is much easier than on the "dark" side. China wants to do just that.

Nine Chinese have so far flown into space. They call themselves taikonauts. In 2013 the first Chinese rover ("Yutu") was dropped on the moon. Although China has only flown four lunar missions so far, the first person in the world is expected to explore the back of the moon in the next few years. China is also planning a mission to Mars. It also wants to drop a rover there.

A pioneer in technological innovation

China's ambitions are enormous. While the US space missions - especially the manned ones - seem like they have lost momentum, China is launching new major projects to advance the exploration of the universe. Especially in technology-oriented sciences, China seems to soon be dependent on the rest of the world with the help of a lot of money, many scientists and very high pressure to succeed.

A few years ago, the Chinese recreated the Transrapid and the Smart one-to-one, and German companies generally complain about Chinese industrial espionage. It will stay that way for a few more years. But the Germans already have every reason to spy in China. Because the country that was perceived as an underdeveloped agricultural country just a few decades ago has now become a pioneer of technological innovation in many areas.

This article appeared in the seventh issue of KATAPULT. Support our work and subscribe to the printed magazine for only 19.90 euros a year.

[1] Cf. Demarco, Emily: Trump's proposed 2018 budget takes an ax to science research funding, on: sciencenews.org (May 26, 2017).
[2] Cf. Morelle, Rebecca: China's Science Revolution, on: bbc.co.uk (23.5.2016).
[3] Cf. Wall, Mike: China Finishes Building World's Largest Radio Telescope, on: space.com (July 6, 2016).
[4] See Morelle 2016.
[5] Cf. ibid.
[6] Cf. ibid.