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For a particularly egregious example, consider the most notable Chinese scientific first of 2018.
China’s leaders see such advances as crucial not just to their economy, but also to expanded military prowess and social progress. Tick (erased when America regained its lead, but watch this space). Over those 40 years America—and, to a lesser extent, Europe—were doing things that had never been done before.
They want the sort of science that will help China project its power and respond to its people’s particular problems. Climate researchers drilling cores deep into the Antarctic icecap? They opened up whole new fields of knowledge such as high-energy astrophysics and molecular biology.
Other countries have considered such missions, but none has ever mounted one.
China has been carefully building up the capacity to go where they have not; now it has done so. The spree is tellingly reminiscent of the golden years of “big science” in post-war America.
It was a perversion of what Chinese scientists are trying to achieve as they seek to establish themselves and their country in the world of elite science. The staggering growth in the number of scientific papers by Chinese researchers needs to be seen in this context.
In terms of pure numbers, China overtook America in 2016 (see chart 2).
It is a long way from landing on the Moon to mining it. Measured against that boom—one of the most impressive periods of scientific achievement in human history—China’s new hardware, grand as it often is, falls a bit short. America’s science boom had a firm institutional and ideological foundation.
But it is not uncommon to hear speculation about such things. It grew out of the great research universities that came into their own in the first half of the 20th century, and whose intellectual freedom had attracted extraordinary talents threatened by regimes elsewhere, including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and indeed Theodore von Kármán, the Hungarian-born aeronautical engineer in whose honour ’s new home is named.
They want new clean-energy sources and freedom from resource constraints. Benefiting from the biggest and best-educated native generations ever produced, they also welcomed in the brightest from around the world.
And the country’s ever greater scientific proficiency makes such ambitions look realisable. And they did so in a culture dedicated to free inquiry, one keenly differentiated from the communist culture of the Soviet bloc. And far from benefiting from a culture of free inquiry, Chinese science takes place under the beady eye of a Communist Party and government which want the fruits of science but are not always comfortable about the untrammelled flow of information and the spirit of doubt and critical scepticism from which they normally grow.