US-China research ties should be a wake-up call to Europe

June 7, 2013

–Dirk Jan van den Berg is President of Delft University of Technology, and was formerly the Dutch Ambassador to China and the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. The opinions expressed are his own.–

Despite much media attention on disagreements, ranging from Taiwan to alleged cyber-attacks, as Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama prepare for their first major summit meeting in California, there is a relatively new and growing basis for warmer ties: scientific and technological collaboration. 

In absolute terms in 2012, the United States collaborated on more scientific research papers with China as the next highest four countries (Japan, UK, Germany and Australia) combined, according to a Thomson Reuters presentation at the 2013 Global University Summit held in London recently.

Painful as it is to acknowledge as the President of a top science and technology university in Europe, the risks are grave for European countries unless the continent raises its game in a quite dramatic way.

Right now, the European economy is not as vibrant as its US counterpart, but it still has attraction for the Chinese. However, this window will last only a decade before China’s innovation system approaches, and perhaps overtakes, that of Europe.

How should Europe secure the prize of locking in collaboration with China?

Firstly, every link of the chain from research to commercialisation must be strengthened, including through the Europe 2020 strategy being driven from Brussels. We also must give greater urgency to national initiatives to reform R&D and innovation systems.

Europe must find synergies between Chinese growth needs and its own strengths of: high quality of research; ability to work in interdisciplinary fashion; and a very successful international corporate sector

Europe excels in food and nutrition, for instance, and there is growing need in China for international scientific expertise owing to need for better production efficiency and quality. Biotechnology, medical technology, nano-electronics and embedded systems, pharmaceuticals, and creative and design all offer opportunities. 

Europe already faces an “innovation emergency”, as Brussels has acknowledged.  If the continent is to retain its economic pre-eminence well into the twenty first century, it must act urgently to lock-in much greater science and technology-led cooperation, with China in particular.

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