Coopetition – for Knowledge, Innovation and a Sustainable Future

For a knowledge and innovation nation with one of the highest R&D-intensities[1] in the world, the policy process of Sweden’s Research and Innovation Bill is of great strategic importance. A comprehensive and intensive process at the Government Offices of Sweden has already started to develop policy measures and look into pubic investments beyond 2020.

A global perspective is, naturally, an integral part of this process and our office has carried out an overview of China’s research and innovation policy landscape as background information and input. Here are a few key observations and reflections that we would like to share with you, having China’s research and innovation super-year 2021 in mind, i.e. when both China’s 14th Five-Year-Plan (2021- 2025) and the 2nd Medium- and Long-term Science and Technology Development Plan (2021- 2035) will be launched:

China is catching up, keeping up and taking the lead – at the same time

It is a well-known fact that China has large R&D expenditures (the second largest in the world, after the US) and R&D personnel (the largest in the world, i.e. 4,2 million Full-Time Equivalent). Here we would like to highlight a few less well-known facts and new developments:

  • Quality improvement in scientific outputs: For instance, the number of globally highly cited researchers from China reached 482 in 2018, ranked 3rd globally, just after US and the UK.[2]  The most rapid increases have taken place in the fields of physics, engineering science, chemistry, mathematics and material science.
  • Investments in research infrastructure and environment: China is making large investments in “Big Science Infrastructure”, focusing on long-term basic research and emerging multidisciplinary research. 
  • Proactive efforts to attract talent globally: More than 2 million highly educated “returnees” have come back to China as “innovation power boosts” in some of the key innovation areas such as AI, material sciences and life sciences. 

With the ambition to catch up, keep up and take the lead at the same time, China is also fully aware of its structural weaknesses in its research and innovation system:

  • The share of basic research in the total R&D expenditure is too low, i.e. around 5- 6 %, compared to 15- 25% in OECD countries. 
  • The share of R&D by the higher education sector is too low, i.e. around 7,5% in total, compared to the OECD -average (round 18%) and Sweden (26%). 
  • Expenditure on basic research by the business sector is too low compared to other advanced OECD countries, i.e. only around 3% of the total expenditure on basic research, even though it is increasing rapidly[3].. This is considered as key competitive disadvantage of Chinese innovation-driven companies. As premier LI Keqiang put is, the essence of Ka Bao Zi technologies, is the weakness in basic research.

To address these structural weaknesses, China has launched comprehensive research and innovation policy reforms with two underlying strategic objectives:

  • Continue to increase public R&D expenditure, particularly in basic research – and at the same time to be more coordinated and long-term, more “talent-focused”, not only “project-focused” or “hardware-focused”.
  • Continue to focus on international competitiveness in basic research, measured by its contribution to disruptive innovations that the business sector needs and the ability to combat global challenges. 

Both competitiveness and sustainability are key focuses  

State Council launched the ”Outline of National Innovation-Driven Development Strategy”  in 2016, through coordinating among more than 20 ministries and collecting inputs from more than 8000 national and international experts. This has become the key guideline for developing China’s innovation-driven competitiveness development by 2030 and some key “2030 Innovation Mega projects” have already been launched by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

At the same time sustainability is also becoming an increasingly strong focus of China’s research and innovation policy – as an integral element of “high-quality growth”. The China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), together with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) launched Top 10 Scientific Issues in the Development of Human Society, having global and cross-border issues in Agenda 2030 as basis and selected by Scientists from over ten countries: [4]

  • 4 health issues: prevention and management of new infectious diseases, effects of social changes on people’s physical and mental health, accurate and comprehensive predictions on future human diseases and technologies for early diagnosis and prognosis monitoring of cancer.
  • 3 environmental issues: Human development without endangering the Earth, cross-border air, water and soil pollution and complete purification of wastewater and sewage.
  • 3 energy issues: controlled nuclear fusion for future energy Issues, efficient energy conversion and storage and balanced and equal provision of energy, water and food in big cities.

Side-by-side with fast growing new knowledge, new innovations, there are also new challenges, such as openness, inclusiveness and ethics. The “CRISPR- babies scandal” and the controversies caused by the use of AI all have all implications for the reputation, credibility and sustainability of China’s research and the innovation development. The establishment of the National Research Ethics Committee[5] isa first step. Broader approaches and sharper measures need , and will  be in place to make research and innovation serve, not harm humanity and nature.  

Coopetition – the future strategic relation with China and China’s relation with the World?

According to Wikipedia, Coopetition is neologism coined to describe cooperative competition. Coopetition is a portmanteau of cooperation and competition. Given the rapidly increasing research and innovation capacity of China as well as the greater and more urgent needs for global cooperation for a sustainable future for us all, maybe “coopetition” could be the best word to frame our future strategic relation with China and China’s relation with the World – particularly in the fields of research and innovation?

Having these reflections and questions in mind, we will follow the policy development closely, ahead of the super year 2021 for research and innovation policy, for both China and Sweden!

Nannan Lundin & Jessica Zhang


[1] Research and Development expenditure to GDP ratio. 

[2] https://clarivate.com/news/global-highly-cited-researchers-2018-list-reveals-influential-scientific-researchers-and-their-institutions/

[3] http://www.360doc.com/content/19/0201/19/15447134_812581928.shtml

[4]http://www.china.org.cn/china/2019-10/18/content_75327924.htm

[5] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02362-5