Saturday, January 1, 2011

A review of perspectives on science and research in China

Contributed by Ying Jiang

Many have been impressed by the pace of technology-industrialization in China. The US is especially worried about China's development of clean energy-related fields and superior student test scores in science and math (albeit in just the relatively advanced coastal city of Shanghai). However, the true might of China as a knowledge and technology creator has also been repeatedly called into question, owing to its reputation for lacking a healthy and fair environment for both fundamental research and product-forming processes.

In the latter aspect, Westerners are familiar with the controversial state of affairs regarding intellectual property. As for basic scientific research, unethical behavior too pervades. Scientific fraud committed includes data fabrication, falsification, plagiarism (and splitting of results into different reports, an act that, while not unethical strictly speaking, increases the number of publication at the cost of reducing the scholarly impact, if not integrity, of the researched work). A debate in the Times early this year presented a variety of opinions on R&D in China, ranging from the deeply critical (corruptive, stifling ambience) to the optimistic (support for R&D comes from the top). As the year proceeded, a case of nationwide cheating committed by Zhang Wuben, a nutrition therapist with fraudulent credentials, was massive enough to catch the attention of foreign media. The Times re-opened the topic of Chinese fraud by presenting statistics and examples, and alarming quotes from overseas Chinese students who take fraud to be a social necessity.

It is a known view that those at the policy level could be ultimately responsible for the irresponsible and soul-wrecking activities of scholars. Even if one had respected the scientific spirit and wanted to keep his integrity, he couldn't do so without battling issues to do with survival. This opinion finds proof recently in a Science editorial co-authored by Yigong Shi and Yi Rao The authors describe with candor and denounced with urgency the demeriting manner in which the top bureaucratic agencies assign scientific funding to scientists who gain preferential status through personal relationship building. The article did not hint the existence of other rumored, more sordid aspects of the process, for example, of bureaucrats making the recommendation taking a fraction of the grant money. Should cases of corruption be severe in extent or even exist, saving the scientific culture of China may be tougher yet.

What the Times called an integrity problem the journalist Sam Geall, in an earlier article in the New Humanist, described with more insight and with reference to more fundamental issues concerning the psyche of the Chinese scientific community (or of Chinese people on certain levels): "repeatedly stymied by ideology, superstition, bureaucratic thinking and fear of dissent". With this, one delves into the different realm of knowledge known as the Chinese (or Asian to some great extent) work culture, and whether it's antithetical to scientific achievements - a subject that has surfaced to scrutiny lately. The Asian culture is generally characterized as collectivistic with the stress of an individual to his superiors being an important component of his ties to the society. This results in manners of knowledge-intake - rote-learning, following known texts and procedures - that is undesirable for creative thinking and excellence. The general stress of interpersonal ties in a collectivistic society can also be used to explain intellectual cronyism, a practice seemingly in fundamental contrast to the employment of the scientific method (based on impersonal observation and deduction).

The question is, is there hope? In another Science article on the Asian R&D scene, the authors proposed "8 recommendations" which constitute general policy and education reforms. In general, they believe a new wave of "enlightened politicians and scientific leadership" would be the key to truly start nurturing great scientific talents and institutes in Asia (China of course included). Till then, the West may still hold its pride for a while for being the founder and upholder of the spirit of modern science.

Sources: NYTimes, The New Yorker, The New Humanist, Science


  1. China said back in 2005, it's aim to move to an innovation-driven economy by year 2020. There are a multitude of voice saying why this won't happen due to structural issues. 1. Cronyism / Corruption. 2. Falsification / Fraud. 3. The idea that Chinese education just does not prepare its students for innovation.

    But this does turn back to the eternal chicken / egg question, doesn't it? Can we have progress without structural change of the system? Can we have structural change without economic / technological progress?

  2. Thanks for your comment. My personal view is that population is one of the most fundamental underlying problems China faces. Resources, a facet of which manifest in scientific funding, are too scarce for its current population. When there isn't enough to ensure survival, there is no leisure to dwell on the spiritual (for eg the spirit of science). The most significant/fundamental progress of China might be that in its demographics (and how it handles that progress relates to political and economic issues).