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.