While the US pushes for competence in the sciences, Chinese researchers hope for a less intense work environment.

chinacompete.jpg Credit: Nathan Watkins

Behind President Bush’s recently announced competitiveness initiative are statistics that predict China—with India in tow—will overtake the US in science and technology, if not tomorrow, then, say, next week. As US high school students flunk math and science tests, the argument goes, Asia turns out a majority of the world’s engineering graduates and pours money into research and development. But lost in the hysteria is the fact that China faces a problem of its own: Chinese science, many say, is too competitive.

In 2001, Mao Guangjun returned to China from a post-doctoral position in Japan to accept a coveted, three-year teaching post at Beijing’s Institute of High Energy Physics. When his contract came up for renewal in October 2004, a review committee decided against keeping him on. Mao took a position at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, but last year, one month before the start of the fall term, he jumped to his death from the fourth floor of his apartment building. He was 36 years old.

Mao’s motivations were apparently not entirely work-related— his marriage was failing as well— but many in the Chinese science community nonetheless see his death as evidence of an arduous system that needs reforming.

“On almost everybody, the pressure is very high,” said Jiang Zhu, an oceanographer who also returned from Japan in 2001 when the Chinese Academy of Sciences offered him two million yuan (approximately $250,000) to establish a research group at Beijing’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics.

Part of the problem, Zhu said, is the direct connection between scientists’ salaries and their performance. Reviews like the one that Mao underwent happen yearly at some institutions and salaries are readjusted to reward or penalize research output.

“In the West you are fixed [at one salary] and you can concentrate on your work. In China, this is not the case,” he said. “Some scientists joke that we are just labor.”

Now, as deputy director of his institute, Zhu, who holds a doctorate from Lancaster University in the UK, hopes to help change that policy.

In the 1980s, China emerged from its Cultural Revolution with a generation of scientific minds lost to farm work, its educational and research institutions stunted by politically motivated appointments and aging, sub-par labs. But over the next two decades, China’s reformist leaders pursued a forward-thinking strategy: Send students abroad in droves to get quality educations, then woo them back with attractive opportunities and new facilities. Between 1980 to 2000, 125,000 of the 380,000 scientists who went abroad returned—fluent in English and armed with connections to the international science community—to reinvigorate tired institutions. Many of the returnees were in their thirties, assuring a long future of productivity ahead of them.

The two-decade sprint toward scientific achievement has had its side effects. The recent suicide of Mao (along with three other scientists in 2004) has alerted the international science community to a problem previously confined to discussions in science chat rooms and the halls of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. For many scientists, the heavy emphasis on publishing, direct linking of salary with performance and political maneuvering they encounter upon returning from abroad can add up to culture shock.

“There really is enormous pressure on a lot of these young hotshots,” said Richard Suttmeier, a political science professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in Chinese science policy. “They have to set up their labs and recruit graduate students very quickly because they’re facing evaluation two or three years after their initial appointment.”

In 2001, Suttmeier and colleague Cao Cong interviewed 52 returnees who had been brought in under the National Science Foundation of China‘s Distinguished Young Scholars program, which provides generous grants for scientists under the age of 45, most of whom have foreign graduate degrees or post-doc experience. Suttmeier and Cao found that the “publish-or-perish” creed, imported from the West in the push to make Chinese science competitive, acquired some intensity in translation. Scientists are expected to regularly publish in English journals with high Science Citation Index factors, and these standards are often stringently applied to a point that Suttmeier believes is unrealistic.

“It’s a question of younger people having to face a lot of demanding criteria pretty early on in their careers,” Suttmeier said.

In addition to performance expectations, social connections, or guanxi, play an important role in Chinese science. The old guard of science officials—who tend to know more about officialdom than they do about science—has not yet completely disappeared, so success depends to a certain degree on active self-promotion. For shy scientists accustomed to getting ahead by logging long days in the lab, this can be difficult.

“The general difference is that in the West if you do good work usually people will notice you,” said Zhu of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. “In China, if you do good work you have to tell other people.”

Still, producing high-quality, internationally acclaimed research may not even be enough; the country’s leaders unabashedly desire a Nobel Prize. While Chinese scientists living overseas have won Nobels, the absence of a prize for research done on Chinese soil is a persistent source of dissatisfaction. Every year when the awards are announced, the Chinese press reports on “the China Nobel question” or “the Nobel dream,” and officials at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have predicted a win in China’s near future.

As elsewhere in Asia, science in China is wrapped up with national pride. While President Bush attempts to instill competitiveness in a population that cannot differentiate a molecule from an atom, China’s scientists are like state-sponsored athletes: heroes in the making for whom losing is not an option.

Originally published March 14, 2006


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