Thinking Small

Andrea Smith takes a look at JUNO and China’s push into particle physics

In the field of science and technology, China has consistently trailed the developed world for the past 50 years. With the proposed Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO), expected to be completed in 2019, however, it seems China is ready to take steps to get ahead, at least in the field of particle physics.


Particle physics, the study of the properties of and interactions among subatomic particles, is truly on the cutting edge of scientific research. Its objects of study are hard to observe, incredibly small, and seem to behave differently than “everyday” matter. The implications of understanding their behavior could be significant for understanding the way the universe works. For this reason, particle physics experiments currently tend to attract large investments and great minds.

JUNO is not China’s first voyage into the realm of nature’s most basic particles, but is representative of a step in the scaling-up direction. China’s previous experience with particle physics most notably includes the recently constructed PandaX Dark Matter Detector, and the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment, which started collecting data in 2011. JUNO will be a continuation of the Daya Bay project. Its expressed main goal is to determine the masses of particles called neutrinos, “a fundamental question of neutrino physics”, according to JUNO spokesperson Yifang Wang.

Located in China’s Guangdong Province, the $330 million project will be run by an international collaboration of over 200 scientists from all over the world. According to the official JUNO website, researchers hope to reach an “international advanced level” in many different aspects of neutrino research, clearly showing China’s desire to compete on the same level as big science and technology developers like the United States and Japan. Each of these countries already have in operation several particle accelerators and other laboratories used to study particle physics and neutrinos on a large scale.

Dr. Wang believes China is the ideal location for the new neutrino lab, though, because it is possible to “find two reactor complexes at an equal distance to an underground experimental site”. It is likely, he adds, that “other countries cannot find reactors and an underground site to satisfy all the requirements.”

And JUNO is just the first step. Already in the works for China is a super particle collider, planned to be completed by the year 2028. If realized, the lab will take the crown for world’s largest collider, overtaking the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC is the world’s current leader, with a 27km circumference, but would be easily dwarfed by China’s potentially 52km super collider. The US and Europe have also begun developing plans for a super collider, but at this point, could not hope to complete it before 2035. China is in a rush to be the biggest and the best, but how feasible is it for the rapidly-developing country to get there?

China’s hunger to become the next international powerhouse in science is apparent. But in its current position, it seems unlikely China will be able to achieve this status on its own. Chinese government spending in the science and technology sector has increased drastically in recent years and is projected to surpass the United States’ total research and development funding by the year 2022.

The scientific results has not been as impressive. The National Science Foundation reports that, in terms of output of research articles, China jumped from 14th place in 1995 to 2nd place in 2007, and by 2009 accounted for 9% of total world output of scientific articles. But Chinese-published papers are not cited nearly as often as US-published papers, due to a gap in research quality. China’s focus seems to have been not on making the most innovative discoveries, but on simply making the most discoveries. A 2012 Nature article (‘China’s Budget Backs Science’) remarks that “the country produces relatively few high-impact articles, and that the majority of Chinese patents constitute minor novelties rather than genuine innovations.”

The hope is, with investment in large-scale projects like JUNO, China can begin to beat the traditional science powerhouses to the big discoveries and rely less on frantically turning out trivial results. Should JUNO become a successful endeavor, it could begin to attract worldwide attention toward China’s science programs and give China the edge it needs to work with or even ahead of the US and Europe, kick-starting meaningful scientific research and development.

In order to compete on an international scale, China needs to maintain its current research output, but without sacrificing the kind of quality that countries like the United States achieve. Investing in research projects like JUNO is a good way to start shifting the focus of Chinese research away from short-term output goals and toward the pursuit of true scientific development.


Andrea Smith is a sophomore at Yale University. Contact her at andrea.t.smith@yale.edu.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of China Hands.

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