China has become a major international player not only economically but also in the field of science and research. The share of China’s GDP spent on research and development (R&D) has risen sharply since the start of the reforms under the new leadership in 2012/2013. At the same time Chinese decision makers have realized that transforming the country into an R&D powerhouse cannot be done on their own. Forging ties with leading international partners is crucial. Germany is one of these partners.
Both Germany and China have placed innovation at the centre of their economic and societal agendas. Looking back on a 40-year history of cooperation, the two countries have built lasting ties, preparing the ground for new strategic partnerships. There is growing demand on both sides to intensify existing relations and increase the scope of such strategic partnerships.
Boost for brain research
Take the field of neurosciences. In 2016, the Chinese government declared brain research a key science and technology project in its 13th Five-Year Plan. It has since launched multiple schemes designed to boost both quality and quantity of neuroscience research. The most prestigious is the China Brain Project (CBP), an ambitious 15-year plan to establish pioneering brain research in China with a focus on artificial intelligence.
Germany, in turn, offers a wide range of training opportunities across the country. Universities and research institutions have a long tradition of neuroscience research, from highly specialized small research groups to large interdisciplinary centres. They provide an excellent environment for young talented neuroscientists.
Chinese universities have increased their scope of strategic partnerships significantly over the last decade. The cooperation between Tongji University in Shanghai and Marburg University is one of these partnerships. Going back as far as the early nineties, Marburg and Tongji have seen their relationship develop from a few joint activities to what is now a highly successful strategic partnership. It was China’s ambitious R&D reforms that marked a change in 2012. The relationship received a further boost between 2013 and 2018 when both universities along with two other Chinese partners were funded under the DAAD programme “Strategic Partnerships and Thematic Networks”. Numerous joint research projects and networks, summer schools, joint doctoral programmes, clinical traineeships and student exchange schemes have since been set up.
Successful cooperation in neurosciences
One example of the successful cooperation is the Sino-German Neuroscience Network (SGN²) (only in German and Chinese). Set up two years ago as part of the Sino-German Alumni Expert Network (DCHAN) (only in German and Chinese) and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), it brings together leading researchers and professionals as well as stakeholders from industry in both countries. Apart from networking, the project is committed to fostering the mobility of young researchers and (post)doctoral candidates, for example by facilitating research stays and clinical rotations for medical students. Learning from each other is key to all these activities. But what does it mean in practical terms? Read about the impressions of two young scientists who recently completed a research stay at their partner institutions in Germany and China:
Jiaojiao Hou graduated from the School of Medicine at Tongji University, where she has since embarked on a PhD within the field of Neurosciences. "My research focuses on a specific method of measuring facial emotional recognition in patients at risk of developing psychosis." The method she refers to is called fMRI, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It is a specific type of scan which can map neural activity within the brain. By detecting early signs of developing psychosis it can be used to prevent the onset of the condition.
In May 2019, Jiaojiao went to Marburg for a month’s training in research methods organised by the Sino-German Neuroscience Network. Her intention was to "receive a sound fMRI training in Marburg and then to apply it to the field of Psychophysiological Interactions (PPI)." Back home, Jiaojiao states that it was a steep learning curve and immensely enriching. She took home a profound knowledge of data programming and data analysis, which enables her now to "choose between a number of methodical approaches". This gives her "a lot more flexibility" in her research. But what struck her most was the level of collaboration between professors and researchers from different departments and research areas in Marburg. "In fMRI studies, especially when it involves psychotherapy, you collaborate with a wide range of people, including psychiatrists, psychologists, technicians, participants and many postgraduate students. I learned that for a successful study, collaboration is key."
Dr. Yifei He agrees that collaboration is key in Neurosciences, not only between German and Chinese researchers but also across the disciplines. Originally from China, he did his Master’s in Clinical Linguistics at Potsdam University and his PhD at Mainz University. In 2016, he was offered a postdoc position at the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of Marburg University (only in German). In 2018, as part of the Sino-German Neuroscience Network (SGN²) activities, he gave an interdisciplinary workshop on Cognitive Neuroscience in Social Interaction and Behaviour at the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) for junior scientists from the fields of Neurosciences, Neurology, Psychiatry, Linguistics, Management, and Computer Sciences. His aim was to "encourage the exchange of research ideas across disciplines between junior scientists and to brainstorm potential directions for further research and personnel collaboration in terms of exchange".
"Cognitive neuroscience is still an emerging field that requires investment in both infrastructure and knowledge. Therefore, a methods workshop from an experienced researcher from Marburg is an efficient way to provide students and interested junior researchers with quick access to knowledge and resources that they can benefit from."
Summing up his experience, Yifei was struck by "the curiosity of students and the willingness to cooperate with junior peers". Research visits like these deepen the cooperation and foster intercultural understanding. His outlook on the Sino-German research cooperation: "Major universities in China, such as HIT, are generously financially supported, so that as long as there is a bilateral will, research institutions in Germany can easily attract students and researchers from China at different levels, without any financial concerns."