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Helen - deputy director of the Research Council's office in Beijing
Name: Helen
PhD discipline: Chinese and German
Area(s) of work: International relations and research council work
Year of graduation: 2005
Date of Interview: 17/06/2008

Now Playing: Helen - deputy director of the Research Council's office in Beijing
Helen describes what her current work role involves.

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Can you tell me what your current position is?

I'm currently Deputy Director of the Research Council's office in Beijing. This is a new office that was set up in 2007, which is representing all seven of the UK Research Councils in China. 

In some detail, can you tell me what your job actually involves?

The first tasks in the first six months were basically setting up the physical infrastructure of an office, so we were setting up legal registration, financial systems, hiring staff, renting an office and fitting out this office.

The main task and the commitment is for five years, is to start building up relations between the UK funding agencies, the UK funding councils and the Chinese funding agencies. So we're there to find out how the Chinese funding system works and to explain that to the UK, both individual scientists and the Research Councils and then try and work out ways in which the UK Research Councils can put money together with the Chinese funding agencies to enable joint applications by UK and Chinese scientists and social scientists to do substantial joint research projects.

So until now really the only opportunities that have been available are small amounts of money for travel and networking and the need is for larger sums of money to enable larger collaborations and more joint publication and authorship of papers, because as China increasingly becomes a leading scientific nation and makes a large contribution to global research, we know that the UK research community needs help to access that pool of talented research

And a typical day, what might you be doing?

I might have a meeting at the Ministry of Science and Technology in China to discuss a joint call for example on a priority area, like new and renewable energy, so we would be discussing the details of the mechanism whereby we might be able to work together on this. That means trying to understand where they're coming from and what their constraints are. Is it possible for us to have a joint call or will they just badge parts of this joint call, so I would meet with them.

Then I might receive a visit off somebody from a UK university who is passing through, who wants to know what we're doing and what funding opportunities are available and to brief us on their China strategy and get some advice and contacts.

Then I might email with people in the Research Councils in the UK about scientific workshops that they're organising or about one of these potentials for a joint call or I might be writing and briefly explaining to them how Chinese National Science Foundation funding works and what opportunities I see there for potential engagement.

So you're based in China and you're working through English and Chinese?


What are the challenges of living in China and living through Chinese?

Well for people who don't speak Chinese it's very alienating to go to China and suddenly have to start working there and people do get a culture shock and don't understand how things are working and often assume maliciousness then on the part of people who are not cooperating with you properly or something like that.

In fact for both me and the Director, because I had spent three or four years living in Taiwan before and the Director had spent 20 years working in Hong Kong, we both hit the ground running really and have found it very easy to engage.

I will usually – in the office the environment is mostly English speaking – we have three local staff and two UK staff and in terms of reading and writing and web searching for things in Chinese, we will usually delegate that to them because they can do that much more quickly but it has meant – the fact that we can speak Chinese, does mean that when we have meetings with contacts in some of our partner agencies, the relationships will have been established much, much faster because we can speak to each other in their language.

Apart from the language, just the level of engagement and interest, so when they know that I have a PhD in Chinese literature then people will joke 'oh, you know about this more than we do' or 'your Chinese is better than ours because we don't know anything about our own literature' or something like that. So that has made a real difference I think to the impact that our office has had because the challenge for a lot of foreign agencies going to China is that there is now a lot of interest in China and many different countries are approaching the same partners to talk about opportunities for working together and if there's no personal feelings of warmth and reciprocity then it's much harder to get institutional connections going on, so it's been quite handy.

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