Wake Up! It’s a New World.

Been awhile since I last made an entry here, lots of excuses: from sloth, to lots going on, to the unending ups and downs of being a soft money research scientist. Not a surfeit of ideas, but a surfeit of putting thoughts to type.

Anyway, just got my latest copy of Science magazine in the mail. Science (an American publication) along with Nature (ostensibly British) are the two leading periodicals in the scientific world. Each of them publish a selection of news articles, perspectives, essays, and reviews about various topics and trends in science, which is why I subscribe. They also include a weekly selection of a dozen or more research papers that are considered high impact and to be of interest to a general audience, although it’s a pretty specialized general audience, since I’m mystified just by the titles of quite a few of those articles.  Publishing in Science or Nature is considered a big achievement. Anyway, this is a digression, the thing that struck me was that my Science magazine came wrapped in plastic as it sometimes does, since companies that sell scientific equipment often include separate brochures that are stuck to the magazine proper to advertise some new piece of equipment, product, or service like DNA sequencing. These are usually three or four pages, since advertising in Science or Nature ain’t cheap.

But this time was different, I thought I was getting two magazines for the price of one, since there were two nearly equal size magazines in the packet. It turns out one was Science, and the other was a 50 page detailed report from Tongji University in China on its work on the development of electric cars.

This was a bit of a surprise, though not a shock. I’m somewhat familiar with Chinese universities, especially the more elite ones, since I read papers from colleagues at a growing number of them, but I’ve not heard of Tongji University. And I’ve certainly never seen a 50-page glossy supplement in Science from any US or European advertising its engineering prowess, that would be a shock.

There’s a bunch of things to think about here. First is the aggressive marketing of a Chinese University in a world leading science publication, and in this regard Tongji University is by no means unusual. Several issues of Nature in the past year have been nearly double their normal size, entirely due to multi-page advertisements taken out by Chinese universities touting their programs in a wide range of science and technology fields, and offering literally dozens of faculty jobs. This is compared to the paltry four or five pages of job ads from western universities that typically appear in Science or Nature each week. It’s also a wake-up call to those who don’t think the future of the automobile is electric and automated. China is the world’s largest auto market, and it’s a reasonable bet that within a decade or so most cars sold there will be electric with self-driving capabilities. It’s also interesting to speculate on when a major Chinese car company will start selling product in North America. Third as a force in science and technology China is not only here to stay, but will soon surpass Japan and South Korea in terms of output of high quality science and engineering from Asia, and may equal par, or even surpass the US and Europe in the not too distant future.

It is also interesting to think about who the Chinese are trying to woo with this kind of outreach using large glossy supplements in Science. Science has about 130,000 subscribers, including many libraries, but primarily professional scientists in North America.  I know few colleagues from North America or Europe who are pulling up stakes and heading to take science positions in China. However, there are many Chinese scientists and engineers working in the West, so I am sure luring them to return is one motivation, as well as bringing in highly talented scientific minds from many other parts of the world – something the US has excelled at….historically.

For my entire scientific lifetime, I’ve never even questioned the fact that the US is the best, most exciting and (despite the challenges) the most supportive place in the world to do science. It’s made it easy for us to attract some of the best people from around the world to come here to do science and engineering. It’s a primary reason US companies dominate the high tech business sector, which in turn, determines technological growth around the globe. While I still believe in these things, we sure as heck shouldn’t be taking this for granted, especially as we are in a confused national state with the most anti-science, anti-immigration government of my lifetime currently residing in the Washington D.C. It’s time to wake up, or be run over.

Remember electric cars are nearly silent, we won’t even hear them coming.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.