As the incidence of breakthrough research increases and research standards in China align increasingly with those of the West, Australian institutions will undoubtedly be driven to conduct more collaborative research in China and less in Australia. What will this mean for our global standing in innovation and invention measures?
Breakthrough science in China
The birth of two monkeys earlier this year, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua (Zhōnghuá translates to the Chinese nation or its people), caused shockwaves in the scientific community and beyond. The pair are the first primates born as a result of cloning, a culmination of decades of collective research in China and beyond.
Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience (ION) in Shanghai successfully applied the same cloning techniques that produced Dolly, and in doing so, overcame technical barriers preventing primate cloning for more than two decades. The birth of Zhong Zhong, and Hua Hua was no simple task – ION scientists Sun Qiang and Liu Zhen started with 109 cloned embryos, which only resulted in six surrogate pregnancies. Considering these low conversion rates, the relative expense of primate research, and the sheer time and effort involved, could this work have been accomplished in any other country but China?
上海中国科学院神经科学研究所（ION）的研究员成功的应用了生产多莉的克隆技术，并在此过程中克服了二十多年来克隆灵长类动物的技术障碍。中中和华华的诞生并非简单的任务 – ION研究员孙强和刘真以109个克隆胚胎开始，只导致了6次代孕怀孕。考虑到如此低的转换率，及灵长类研究的相对费用以及所涉及的时间和精力，这项工作是否可以在除中国之外的任何其他国家完成？
Figure 1 | Infographic of the cloning method used by the ION researchers, as published in Cell. Liu et al. (2018), Cloning of Macaque Monkeys by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. Cell, 881-887, 172 (4), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2018.01.020
Research a growing focus in China
Since 2008 China has been accelerating expenditure on research and development as a percentage of its GDP. In 2013 this number was 1.7%. 2015 figures from the OECD show that the number has increased to just over 2% representing a staggering USD$376 billion. By 2019 China is predicted to surpass USA as the world’s most prolific inventor, in line with its 13th 5-year plan set out by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. By comparison, while Australia was already spending this proportion of GDP on R&D by 2008, due to a smaller economic footprint the latest reported dollar figure is only USD$21 billion.
 OECD (2018), Gross domestic spending on R&D (indicator). doi: 10.1787/d8b068b4-en (Accessed on 12 February 2018).
Figure 2 | China’s increasing emphasis on R&D as a factor of their GDP. OECD (2018), Gross domestic spending on R&D (indicator). doi: 10.1787/d8b068b4-en (Accessed on 12 February 2018)
Nowhere is the potential of the Chinese R&D engine more evident than when considering China’s ever-changing workforce. There are more researchers in China (just over 2 million) than in any other country in the world. More than two-thirds are employed through industry-funded positions. In addition, the Chinese government has pledged a further USD$9.4 billion to a development fund aimed at supporting R&D start-ups. This is in comparison to Australia where more than half of all researchers are dependent on government grants.
 OECD (2018), Researchers (indicator). doi: 10.1787/20ddfb0f-en (Accessed on 12 February 2018)
 Nature 553, S2-S3 (2018) doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00536-1
Could this cloning feat have been achieved in Australia?
The birth of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua has raised some concerns about the ethics surrounding cloning research in China. China has guidelines around primate research, although these are arguably more liberal than those in Western countries. In Australia, primate research is only allowed in the absence of other alternatives. This appropriately but severely restricts their use. In the USA, another country with a long history of outstanding biological science breakthroughs, the NIH is moving away from primate research altogether because of a combination of importation restrictions, animal rights activism, and increasing costs. If these factors don’t already play a part in Australian trial design, they are certain to in future.
Ethics aside, the reality is that there is neither the patience nor the funding in Australia to support a prolonged and expensive research project as that which resulted in Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. A stagnant medical research budget means there is little patience in research laboratories where publications per year is the key factor in accessing grant monies. The lack of available R&D positions means more and more scientists look overseas for work opportunities, or transition into different industries. The announcement of the Medical Research Futures Fund (MRFF) in late 2015 was heralded as a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to significantly reshape the landscape of Australian medical research and innovation’. This raised some hopes for future translational research. The first trickles of the MRFF have since begun to find their way to Australian laboratories with $121 million allocated for 2017/18, and $643 million slated in 2020/21. Despite this, sceptics remain cautious about the accessibility of this funding, or whether it will even be enough.
抛开道德伦理，现实情况是，澳大利亚既没有耐心也没有资金来支持像导致了中中和华华一般的长期和昂贵的研究项目。澳大利亚停滞不前的医学研究预算意味着研究实验室几乎没有耐心做实际研究，因每年出版物的数量是获取拨款的关键因素。研发岗位的缺乏也意味着越来越多的科学家到海外寻找工作机会，或转向不同的行业。医学研究期货基金（Medical Research Futures Fund，简称MRFF）在2015年末发布的消息被誉为“一生中一次重大改变澳大利亚医学研究和创新格局”的机会。这为未来的转化研究带来了一些希望。 MRFF的第一批拨款已经开始走向澳大利亚实验室，2017/18年度拨款为1.21亿美元，2020/21年度拨款为6.43亿美元。尽管如此，怀疑论者仍然对这笔资金的可获得性或者是否足够持谨慎态度。
The Chinese breakthrough has considerable potential for research on diseases where use of non-primate animal models has had limited success and where the use of primates is essential to unlocking the mechanism of disease. This is true for example in both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease in which the interaction of genes and the environment plays a key role in the disease symptoms, and where other models have so far had limited success. The publication of the ION researchers’ work in Cell, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific peer-reviewed journals, reflects the significance of this work.
Opportunities for Australian entities in China
Scientific breakthroughs in China have not gone unnoticed. Last year, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, the University of Melbourne, and Cancer Trials Australia announced plans to establish a translational research facility in the Jiangsu province, as part of a trans-Pacific collaborative effort. It is likely that the aim of this partnership is to establish clinical trials using the combined powers of Chinese facilities and Australian clinical trial knowledge. Globally, facilities in China are attracting interest due to the cutting-edge platforms established via increased government investment. Australian researchers will be familiar with the Beijing Genomics Institute, the world’s largest sequencing centre, where scientists regularly perform whole-genome sequencing. BGI has some of the lowest service costs in the industry and is typically cheaper than local sequencing companies even after additional shipping and importation expenses. Technology parks are appearing in every conceivable province offering tax incentives and free rent for eligible start-ups.
中国在科学上的突破并未被忽视。去年，沃尔特和伊丽莎霍尔研究所，墨尔本大学和澳大利亚癌症试验组织共同宣布在江苏省建立转化研究机构的计划，作为跨太平洋合作努力的一部分。该合作关系的目的很可能是应用中国设施和澳大利亚临床试验知识的综合实力以建立临床试验。在全球范围内，中国的设施通过政府增加投资而建立的尖端平台，吸引了人们的兴趣。澳大利亚研究人员将熟悉世界上最大的测序中心 – 华大基因（BGI），在此科学家们会定期进行全基因组测序。 BGI拥有业内最低的服务成本，并且通常比本地测序公司便宜，即使加入额外的运输和进口费用后也是如此。技术园区也出现在每个可以想象的中国省份，为合格的初创企业提供税收优惠和免费租赁。
Australia is a global leader in scientific research, ranking 11th in the world for total number of scientific publications annually. We have the highest number of publications per thousand population at 1.70, placing us above the USA at 1.12 and the UK at 1.49 (Canada is close second at 1.60). But how does this compare to our scientific innovation? One proxy for measuring innovation as a result of R&D is to look at so-called triadic patent families, or patents submitted to three major patent offices: the European Patent Office (EPO), the Japan Patent Office (JPO) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Typically, that an organisation is seeking to patent technology in all three of these offices means there is commercial value attached to the invention that is worth protecting. Since 2006, the number of triadic patent families originating from China has increased nearly five-fold. During this same period the number of triadic families originating from Australia has declined.
 InCitesTM, Thomson Reuters, 2010. International collaboration data from Web of ScienceTM, courtesy of Thomson Reuters
 OECD (2018), Triadic patent families (indicator). doi: 10.1787/6a8d10f4-en (Accessed on 14 February 2018)
Figure 3 | Australia lags behind globally in number of triadic patent families.
The birth of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua should come as no surprise to those following China’s surge in scientific and R&D investment. Indeed, China’s forthcoming advance past the USA as the world’s top inventor is merely fulfilment of a focus set in motion by the Chinese government nearly a decade ago. Growing standards of research and ethics in China have already begun attracting overseas partnerships including from Australian businesses and research institutions. In Australia this comes as a result of a combination of factors including a lack of government focus on innovation and a stagnant R&D budget. The announcement of the MRFF raised hopes for future translational research outcomes. However there are still many unknowns. For now, establishing strategic partnerships with Chinese entities and benefiting from the government structures in place might offer an alternative to ensure that Australia continues to be a force in biological R & D in future.