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  HOME | Science, Nature & Technology

Spanish Scientists Finding Opportunities, Challenges in China

SHANGHAI – As part of its shift towards becoming a more multifaceted economy with added value, China has become the heaviest investor among the world’s major powers in scientific research.

Spanish scientists are increasingly capitalizing on the opportunity, settling in China to carry out their research.

“More and more are coming, I do not think it will be a massive (number), but being here is an opportunity (...) Since this is the best place in the world right now to start working in a laboratory,” Jose Pastor, professor and researcher at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told EFE.

While countries like the United States hold recruitment drives for foreign scientists once a year, China holds regular recruitment seminars throughout the year, the 41-year-old biologist said.

According to official data from China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the country’s total spending on research and development reached 1.76 trillion yuan ($279 billion) in 2017, an annual increase of 14 percent.

Since 2012, the annual expenditure in this sector has increased by 70.9 percent, a “massive” investment with which China soon hopes to surpass the US, currently the leading scientific global power, Pastor says, while investment in similar initiatives in countries such as Spain remains very low by comparison.

The Spanish genetics expert has been in China for six years researching developmental biology and is president of the China-Spain Research Network (RICE) set up in 2016 which, as a member of the Network of Associations of Spanish Scientists and Researchers (RAICEX), seeks to promote collaboration and the spread of information.

In China, about 50 researchers (both in science and the arts) are registered with the organization. Their first meeting will take place on Friday at the Instituto Cervantes in Beijing, when several speakers will discuss their experiences in the country.

Among them are Rosa Lozano and Alberto Macho, who head two research projects at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences studying how viruses or bacteria produce diseases in plants.

They both came to China from Malaga four years ago and in that time have been able to confirm that China’s approach is extraordinary: “the resources that offer you money, equipment and hire people, the security they give you, is spectacular,” Macho, 38, told EFE.

A third of the researchers both in his team and Lozano’s are Spanish, most of them post-doctoral students who chose to come to China despite the challenges.

“Cultural differences are huge and salaries are not exorbitant but you are paid as a government official, (and) here one can do things that in other parts of the world would be unthinkable,” so “the challenge is worthwhile,” Macho said.

One of those things is the luxury of “taking risks and making mistakes,” Lozano said, who said the “calm” environment in China which fosters fearless research were among the biggest draws in making the move.

“You know that from day one you will be able to do your job, while in other places that is not the case because the funding is more limited, so you are always (living in) uncertainty and work over short periods of time,” he said.

When asked about why China is looking to welcome more foreigners, Lozano said he believes the country wants to gain an insight into scientific developments in other countries and that in turn the world takes notice of the progress being made in China.

Pastor said that most of the world has “no idea of the level (of investment) neither in the streets nor in the institutions.”

Spain, he said, only has a framework agreement between the Spanish National Research Council and its Chinese counterpart, although it has never been implemented.

“France, United Kingdom or Germany, even have centers here. They are funding not only cooperation projects but they are investing (...) here because this is the place to be, but in Spain they are not really aware of this,” Pastor said.

“We are very interested in having students come to our laboratories. In Spain there are many talented people who start their thesis and have to leave because they do not get scholarships,” he added.

“There are so many such stories” that in China could have a different ending, he said.


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