When The New York Times recently ran a major story about China becoming the world's second-greatest producer of science papers after the US, the subtext was not lost on its readers. Besides challenging the United States as the pre-eminent economic power, China is also becoming a science powerhouse. What the article did not say is that quantity does not equate to quality.
If the newspaper had waited a few weeks longer, it could have included a new study by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China that lambastes a mainland research culture that prides itself on the number of publications over their quality. Instead of looking just at publication numbers in international science journals, the institute's study also evaluated patents, citations and science awards, among other academic indices, to gauge the rankings of 19 major countries - including China, India, Britain and the United States.
It breaks down rankings into "science power" and global scientific influence. China's "science power" - or domestic research capability - ranks a far less impressive fourth, after Germany, Japan and the U.S. It is even further behind in terms of global scientific influence - 13th out of 19 major industrial economies. Even in absolute terms, the U.S. still has a significant lead in the number of papers produced in virtually every major scientific field.
There is no denying that the mainland has made leaps and bounds since the last century. It's worth remembering that the last seven books of Euclid's Elements were not translated into Chinese until after the first opium war. Newton's Principia Mathematica, which laid the foundation for the scientific and industrial revolutions in the West, was not available in Chinese until the 20th century. At the turn of the previous century, the Qing dynasty court believed the Boxer rebels were immune to the firepower of Western troops. China only got its first Western-trained nuclear physicist in 1928, when Wei Hsioh-ren received his doctorate at the University of Chicago. So China has made up for a lot of lost time.
Major problems that plague the mainland scientific community today are analogous to those faced by the larger economy - corruption, nepotism, centralized control and turf wars between different funding departments and ministries. These are preventing the mainland from getting the most bang for its buck, according to the institute, even though it's one of Beijing's priorities to turn the nation into a science powerhouse.
To shake up the complacent culture, the mainland has gone into overdrive to entice leading overseas Chinese scientists to move to the mainland, by appealing to their patriotism. It is hoped they will have a positive and powerful influence on their mainland colleagues by their state-of-the-art research, their worldwide connections with leading researchers, and their knowledge of best scientific practices. It is still too early to tell how effective these efforts will be, but many of these top researchers have complained about being dragged into the internal politics of their institutions; some say they suffer ostracism. Being favored by the central government and top ministers is by no means a blessing, they find, when they suffer slander, sabotage and professional jealousy.
As a measure of success, indexes measuring citation frequencies are far more useful, and in this, US research is far above everyone else. Research success means producing results and ideas that other researchers can build on. It means having scientists with the leadership, individuality and daring to carry out fruitful research programs, not following blindly what may be fashionable in some research fields.
But the mainland's science research and funding system is hierarchical and prizes seniority and connections over competence; gifted scientists have difficulty succeeding. Most pursue their careers in foreign countries after study abroad. Beijing needs to realize that it needs not just top people but also fundamental reforms of institutions and culture.
Reproduced with permission from the South China Morning Post.