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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 1, 2011

Chinese Research: Not Quite the Juggernaut?

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Posted by Derek

A perennial topic around here has been the state of scientific research in China (and other up-and-coming nations). There's no doubt that the number of scientific publications from China has been increasing (be sure to read the comments to that post; there's more to it than I made of it). But many of these papers, on closer inspection, are junk, and are published in junk journals of no impact whatsoever. Mind you, that's not an exclusively Chinese problem - Sturgeon's Law is hard to get away from, and there's a lot of mediocre (and worse than mediocre) stuff coming out of every country's scientific enterprise.

But what about patents? The last couple of years have seen many people predicting that China would soon be leading the world in patent applications as well, which can be the occasion for pride or hand-wringing, depending on your own orientation. But there's a third response: derision. And that's what Anil Gupta and Haiyan Wang provide in the Wall Street Journal. They think that most of these filings are junk:

But more than 95% of the Chinese applications were filed domestically with the State Intellectual Property Office—and the vast majority cover "innovations" that make only tiny changes on existing designs. A better measure is to look at innovations that are recognized outside China—at patent filings or grants to China-origin inventions by the world's leading patent offices, the U.S., the EU and Japan. On this score, China is way behind.

The most compelling evidence is the count of "triadic" patent filings or grants, where an application is filed with or patent granted by all three offices for the same innovation. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, there were only 473 triadic patent filings from China versus 14,399 from the U.S., 14,525 from Europe, and 13,446 from Japan.

Starkly put, in 2010 China accounted for 20% of the world's population, 9% of the world's GDP, 12% of the world's R&D expenditure, but only 1% of the patent filings with or patents granted by any of the leading patent offices outside China. Further, half of the China-origin patents were granted to subsidiaries of foreign multinationals. . .

The authors are perfectly willing to admit that this probably will change with time. But time can make things worse, too: as this editorial in Science last year made clear, the funding of research in China has some real problems. The authors of that piece are professors at two large Chinese universities, and would presumably know what they're talking about. For the biggest grants, they say:

. . .the key is the application guidelines that are issued each year to specify research areas and projects. Their ostensible purpose is to outline “national needs.” But the guidelines are often so narrowly described that they leave little doubt that the “needs” are anything but national; instead, the intended recipients are obvious. Committees appointed by bureaucrats in the funding agencies determine these annual guidelines. For obvious reasons, the chairs of the committees often listen to and usually cooperate with the bureaucrats. “Expert opinions” simply reflect a mutual understanding between a very small group of bureaucrats and their favorite scientists. This top-down approach stifles innovation and makes clear to everyone that the connections with bureaucrats and a few powerful scientists are paramount. . .

Given time, this culture could be changed. Or it could just become more entrenched as the amounts of money become larger and larger and the stakes become higher. China could end up as the biggest scientific and technological powerhouse the world has ever seen - or it could end up never living up to its potential and wasting vast resources on cargo-cult theatrics. It's way too early to say. But if many of those Chinese patents are just being written because someone's figured out that the way to get money and prestige is to file patents - never mind if they're good for anything - then that's not a good sign.

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Patents and IP | The Scientific Literature | Who Discovers and Why


1. still a chemist but for how long on August 1, 2011 8:47 AM writes...

While we continue to sneer at China's and India's lackluster patent filings, should we really be proud of the slap-chop, shake weight, ab-roller, thigh master, snuggie/slanket, and other high-impact inventions?

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2. Anonymous on August 1, 2011 9:01 AM writes...

very little difference in how granting agencies fund science here in the US....gather a group of experts to determine the needs of the NIH....and round and round it goes.

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3. gyges on August 1, 2011 9:11 AM writes...

"...wasting vast resources on cargo-cult theatrics."

The UK is currently gripped by cargo cult theatrics. A grubby market trader has been ennobled and hosts a tv program where the populace at large, hang on to his every word. It is pathetic to behold.

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4. Virgil on August 1, 2011 9:31 AM writes...

Anyone who's ever read a Request For Applications (RFA) from the NIH within their field of individuals can usually tell who it was "written for". These RFAs are no different to the Chinese way - if you're a well connected scientist, you can game the system to solicit your kind of research.

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5. Chris D on August 1, 2011 9:34 AM writes...

Given the quality of the US PTO, it's shocking to imagine someplace worse. They have a long, long way to go.

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6. cirby on August 1, 2011 9:48 AM writes...

Seems like they're trying to get their "patent to engineer ratio" up by filing as much paper as they can. The problem is that they have a heckuva lot of "engineers" who, well, aren't.

I've met way too many Chinese "engineers" who don't even know the basics of their own fields. Basically, they find good loyal Party members, run them through a school with no real standards, teach them English, and send them off to find things they can bring back so the handful of real engineers and techs can make a copy.

It's really starting to bite them, too. The recent high speed rail crash happened, apparently, because they made trains with other people's tech - but didn't learn all of the lessons (like fail-safe signaling methods in case of power failure). I'd never live downstream from a Chinese-designed and built dam, that's for sure...

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7. Beyoncero on August 1, 2011 9:58 AM writes...

Good point. Most Chinese educated scientists are very good at memorization. To be innovative, one must creatively reduce concepts into true applications. The majority of Chinese are far from that level of performance. To be innovative one must think unconventionally. That is contrary to the traditional thinking in China where non-conforming individuals will be "re-educated" to behave like everyone else.

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8. leftscienceawhileago on August 1, 2011 11:16 AM writes...

7. "To be innovative, one must creatively reduce concepts into true applications. The majority of Chinese are far from that level of performance."

I have to say that is true of most chemistry PhD's from every country I have seen.

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9. RB Woodweird on August 1, 2011 11:20 AM writes...

@cirby: This reminds me of when Chennault went to China to train the Chinese Air Force. He found a bunch of incompetent pilots - children of the wealthy and of politicians who had been minimally trained and automatically promoted by the Italians who had been running the flight schools. These pilots refused to go on practice flights as below their dignity and station. When the Japanese airplanes arrived, the results were predictable.

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10. Fishy Fish on August 1, 2011 12:14 PM writes...

It is very expensive to file patent applications in multiple jurisdictions. Only giants, IBM's, Siemens' of the world, can afford to do that on a constant basis. Given the "picket fence" theory of patent filing (large amount of filings to form an "air-tight" fence around a particular technology), most of small and mid-sized companies form that "picket fence" of their technology in their largest market, which generally is here in the U.S. In addition to the huge expense, majority of Chinese companies have their eyes on domestic market. That could be one of the reasons why Chinese companies account for a tiny percentage of the filling in the U.S., the EU and Japan.

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11. MoMo on August 1, 2011 12:37 PM writes...

You have to give the Chinese credit for trying-but it will be a long haul before they get up to "innovation speed".

Their history is one of oppression, suspicion and homogeneity- all of the traits that go against the nurturing of individuals that are creative, maverick-like and out-of-the-box thinkers.

Do you think Kary Mullis would have lasted in China? He would have been shut in box and sent to the thallium mines before he would ever had a chance to do PCR.

And that is what America Pharma just doesn't get. They farm out science to the cheapest and most accomodating.

There will be some successes from China-but in the end run you get what you pay for. And the United States will pay dearly for these knee-jerk-cost-saving measures from planet MBA.

But, I started getting my hair cut to look like Chairman Mao's....Just in Case!

Way nee how! (Hi, how are you?)

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12. Wearing a Snuggie While Reading Derek's Blog on August 1, 2011 1:10 PM writes...


If people are willing to buy a bathrobe and wear it backwards, and call it a "Snuggie", so what? Snuggies don't need clinical trials or FDA approval.

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13. Anonymous on August 1, 2011 1:53 PM writes...

That said, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) totally kicks butt. Admittedly, it's run in large part by Chinese from US academic situations, but it shows that that government can produce excellent quality science when it tries.

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14. MoMo on August 1, 2011 3:00 PM writes...

Beijing Genomics Institute? So they can fail like the US ones?

Strike one for Chinese Research!

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15. cirby on August 1, 2011 3:37 PM writes...

"...slap-chop, shake weight, ab-roller, thigh master, snuggie/slanket, and other high-impact inventions?"

Let's see. We have Ron Popeil for the Slap-Chop, a Taiwanese engineering group for the Shake Weight, and US-born non-engineers for the other inventions. So yeah, we should.

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16. cirby on August 1, 2011 3:40 PM writes...

"...slap-chop, shake weight, ab-roller, thigh master, snuggie/slanket, and other high-impact inventions?"

Let's see. We have Ron Popeil for the Slap-Chop, a Taiwanese engineering group for the Shake Weight, and US-born non-engineers for the other inventions. So yeah, we should.

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17. anon2 on August 1, 2011 4:03 PM writes...

The point has been made before, but I'll make it again:

Remember the discussion on this blog about the TetLett paper that described amide couplings facilitated by samarium metal? That was a perfect example of the top-down approach in China. The Chinese view rare earths as a vital national resource (to which they have a virtual monopoly), and so they encourage any research that will show new uses of rare earths. Even non-sensical ones like amide couplings. It's not like the bureacrats would know this is a largely solved problem.

This is a culture in which, for 3000 years, admission to the civil service depended on memorizing classic literature. And that only ended less than 100 years ago. They've a long way to go before they overtake the states in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship.

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18. @17 on August 1, 2011 4:26 PM writes...

But MBAs doing the outsourcing do not understand what innovation means in a benchtop setting or the context of drug design...They just can't appreciate it the same way a PhD/MBA or PhD can and as long as they are directing, they will see science as a simple task, much like solving a list of simple math problems. Such simple tasks are so easy to justify outsourcing.

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19. anotheranon on August 1, 2011 4:47 PM writes...

It's easy to disdain the Chinese for their "lack of innovation" when you're comfortably employed. For those who aren't so lucky, "innovation" ain't necessarily gonna pay their bills and feed their families.

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20. Anonymous on August 1, 2011 4:48 PM writes...

No offence, but having worked in the med chem field for many years I have noticed some disturbing behavioral characteristics from a number of individuals in the industry.

1. "One-uping" your idea in an attempt to hijack the idea (or hijack the cargo???)

2. Non-cooperativity if you need to borrow intermediates etc...when you are in need and have exciting results and a deadline.

3. "Behind your back" bad mouthing to upper management to try to taint you.

4. When you propose an idea/solution that is out of the box, you are met immediately with "that is obvious" and point # 1 above kicks in.

I guess it's a cultural thing but what ever happened to trust, cooperation, working in the interest of the company doing the right thing? I think China has a long way to go...

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21. Zippy on August 1, 2011 5:02 PM writes...

Anyone who has been to China recently, met with scientists and students, and been in their labs might develop some respect for their capabilities and potential. Coupling these human resources with a government that has the will and determination to pursue long term goals in science and drug discovery will lead to real competition for established companies in a decade or so. And this process is catalyzed by recruitment of experienced scientists from the west.

They are likely aiming beyond CRO status. They have a ways to go, but the will and means to get there.

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22. Anonymous on August 1, 2011 5:41 PM writes...

Have we been there before? In early 1990's everyone was snickering at made-in-china and labeling them bottom-feeder destined to nowhere but trash cans. How about now?

I am not saying that Chinese will dominate research like they do in manufacturing but give the folks a break. Don't embarrass your own intelligence with your mouthpiece.

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23. JRnonchemist on August 1, 2011 5:44 PM writes...

My guesses run more in the direction of 'never living up to its potential and wasting vast resources on cargo-cult theatrics'.

I do not think the key issue is ancient history, tradition, and culture. My understanding is that if anything, the Republic of China is more inclined that way than the People's Republic of China, and the Republic of China (Taiwan), as opposed to the People's Republic of China, doesn't seem to be doing too badly for itself.

Short term I think that a) communists and b) Mao's effort to put his imprint wherever he could may be stronger factors. If currently there are a lot of poorly structured efforts to make the People's Republic of China scientific resources produce significant results, it might be a less sociopathic and more humanistic attempt to retry the 'Great Leap Forward'.

Long term, never is a long time. A key factor may be if Mao's attempts at social engineering altered any of the factors that have previously caused the Chinese government to be rebuilt collapse after collapse and failure after failure. That said, this may be too long a time scale for many of us to care about.

It is really difficult to say for certain without knowing how crazy and destructive the government of the People's Republic of China is. (I tend to think that governments, as well as anarchy, are destructive to varying degrees.) To have a really solid idea how crazy and destructive a government is now would seem to require, under best conditions, the benefit of hindsight, decades down the line. Of course, this partly matters relative to the same factor for the other countries involved.

How does anyone feel about predicting the Alaska State Lotto of a hundred years from now?

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24. Anonymous on August 1, 2011 5:46 PM writes...

@9 Thanks for the history, grandpa....

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25. imatter on August 1, 2011 9:32 PM writes...

I doubt that NIH is any more different with funding.

I agree with #19. As long as US innovations are not developed and manufactured in the USA, it does me no good. Yo, we can't all be innovators.

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26. CMCguy on August 1, 2011 11:12 PM writes...

Maybe the lack of Chinese patents comes from the fact that since as a norm they don't respect any one else's patents rights thay don't what to expose any innovation to potential IP thieves.

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27. Salami on August 2, 2011 7:29 AM writes...

#26 CMCguy may be on to something. Intellectual property theft is rampant in China. Why apply for a patent when casual disregard of patent rights is the norm where you live?

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28. Wei on August 2, 2011 4:57 PM writes...

People lives in Mars can not understand what's going on in the earth. Who are acutllay running the junk journals anyway????

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29. MoMo on August 3, 2011 11:05 AM writes...

Zippy- Two words for your support with the prowess of the Chinese people and the government- Tianamen Square

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30. Terry on August 6, 2011 1:42 PM writes...

Patents in china-from Terry’s view

It seems I have missed a very interesting topic regard China. I finished my vacation in CA, it is a beautiful state, more beautiful than most of states in US, but I have to admit that my hometown is much better than it. I read lots of threads in lots of forum, based on that I would like to believe that most Chinese in US still have a Chinese paradise in their mind.

One of the evidences to support my view is that most Chinese profs in US started to contact an academic institution in China to start corporation and try to get the best from both US and China, one of the example is Beigene is a start-up company focus on new drug discovery which is founded by Dr Wang, a famous US prof. As I heard is that it has been got the VC from US resource, leaded by Dr Wang, Beigene is trying to expanded their business in China to use the relative cheaper human resource as well as the aid from government.

As a Chinese expert in pharmaceutical industry, I have my two cents about the patents and intellectual protection in china as below.

In western country Patent protection is a very important issue in pharmaceutical industry, it is originated from Europe, then it derived to US. In pharmaceutical industry these patents related with new chemical entry always combine with regulations from FDA to regulate the market of the new drugs and generic drugs. Based on this regulation system, the generic drugs company such as Teva, Apotex are able to compete and corporate with these giant pharmaceutical companies and establish themselves in a special market.

The competition between these generic drugs company and multinational pharma is kind of subtle, a competition relying on each other, so there is a very interesting act regard this market called hatch-wax act in 1985, which regulated the relation between the generic drug industry and giant phama focus on new drugs.

Even though lots of factors affect the competition between these two kinds of phama, the key point, from my perspective, is the core patents. These patents will protect the right of the inventor and guarantee they can recoup their money back once the new drug development is successful. Usually the core patents of a drug can be described as chemical patens and chemical combination patents, crystal patents (polymorph) as well as synthetic processing patents. Among them the most powerful patents protection is chemical and polymorph protection. These patents have been listed in the red book of FDA as the key issue for the future development of the generic ones once the patens have been expired.

To join the WTO China imported a similar patent system after 1993. Wrong or right , it is still hard to give the conclusion about allow china to join the WTO, which is described in Norway’s killers’ post as the most wrong decision that the western world has done. Since then china started to play an important role in global pharmaceutical industry and protect the multinational phama’s intellectual property in china. To my personal view, before 2000 there are only generic drug companies in china and these domestic phama obeyed these patents and made a great sacrifice after the open market to multinational phama. Also at that time almost no pahma companies in china have their own patents regard the drugs, thanks god, we now have more than 10 me-too drugs with own intellectual property, which surely is brought by the economic booming in china.

As Derek in the post indicated there is an enormous rise in the patents application and aprovation china, however, only very few of the compaieds have applied the patents in Europe and US. Now I can explain the reason, it is the result of the government regulation.

The Chinese government realized intellectual property is so important in the modern time, so they encourage the companied to apply patents to incubate them to be multinational giants. One of the policies is that an enterprise will be allowed to enjoy a decreased tax once they are proved to be a high-tech company, one of the necessary requests is that the company has to apply at least two patents application to ISPO (China) each year to keep this special deal with government. So it is obviously most companies want to get this tax promotion and apply patents as more as possible to get a win-win situation.

That’s why even a multiannual Parma applied patens in china and these patents have been approved by the authorities, they are followed by lots of small companies in china to apply similar patents with minor revision.

For example

Tenofovir Disoproxil Fumarate is developed by Gilead
After Gilead filed patents application in USPTO, the company then filed the same patents application in china as below

(1)化合物专利 (chemical)
CN101239989 CN100384859
(2)衍生物专利 (chemical derivatives)
CN101778855 CN101781334 CN101781335
(3)工艺专利 (processing)
(4)制剂专利 (dosage, combination)
CN101918418 CN01984640 CN101181277 CN100420443 CN01251679 CN100383148
Totally there are 12 core patents applied by Gilead in china, however if we check all patents related through the database, there are around 40 others by other domestic companies, which covered almost all the four core patents area.

Now you know the reason why there is a soaring of the patents application in China.

Most staffs in pharmaceutical industry usually believe that these patents are not so important and not authentic one, similar as the situation in IT area. It is kind of thing that government wants to train the companies to have the law perspective and prepare to have a real new drugs invented by Chinese.

Derek: can you have some posts about Chinese profs started companies and have part time job in China?
Is that good or bad?

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31. Kaleberg on August 14, 2011 2:11 PM writes...

How good is patent enforcement in China? If patents are generally weak and unenforceable, a lot of innovators just aren't going to bother with them, either filing for them or worrying about infringing on them.

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