Research published on 14 October shows that the UK is now only second to the US in terms of the number of joint research publications with China.
But the report, by the innovation charity Nesta in collaboration with Research Councils UK and the UK government, argues that the UK must become more ambitious in its strategy to work with the country, which now spends $163 billion (£102 billion) each year on research and development
It argues that China’s rapid progress has been driven by its emphasis on “absorption”, which Nesta describes as a concerted push to combine stronger home-grown research capabilities with foreign technologies and knowledge.
“[China’s] innovation system is advancing so rapidly, and is now so absorptive, that the UK needs a more ambitious strategy, better able to seize opportunities across the spread of our academic, research and business links to China,” said Kirsten Bound, the report’s co-author and head of international innovation at Nesta.
“For the UK, the choice is not whether to engage more deeply with China’s innovation system, but how,” she added.
Published to coincide with a visit to Beijing by the Chancellor, George Osborne, and universities and science minister David Willetts, the report finds that China now accounts for 13 per cent of the world’s total scientific research output, and 25 per cent of the world’s R&D workforce.
While the UK spends almost as much as China on basic and applied research, the Asian country spends more than six times more in the development phase of innovation, adds China’s Absorptive State: Research, Innovation and the prospects for UK-Chinacollaboration.
It also says that although the quality of Chinese research has not grown at the same rate as its volume, there exists a “new focus on quality, efficiency and evaluation” among China’s leadership.
The report recommends that the UK develop a new five-year strategy for China-UK partnership in research and innovation ready for 2016, and that it identifies more sophisticated methods and metrics for collaboration.
It also says the UK should create a China-UK expert group to expand the existing innovation policy dialogue between the two countries and better inform official discussions.
According to RCUK, there are currently £47 million of jointly funded UK-China research programmes.
While in Beijing, Mr Willetts was set to meet with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology vice-minister Cao Jianlin and announce £7 million in new partnerships.
Investments include £3 million from the Technology Strategy Board, RCUK and the MoST to support partnerships in sustainable manufacturing, as well as up to £4 million from RCUK and the National Natural Science Foundation of China to fund a second phase of stem cell research between the two countries.
Also set to be announced were five UK-China partnering awards from RCUK and the Chinese Academy of Sciences to support collaborative activities such as exchange of early career researchers, workshops, reciprocal access to facilities, networking and travel in the area of synthetic biology.
Speaking at the launch of the report, Mr Willetts said he was particularly pleased that the UK has risen to become China’s second most popular partner in co-authored research papers.