Why Chinese Basic Research is Failing

After hitting my 100th ChinaTalk podcast episode, I reran a fan favorite, ‘The Rise and Fall of a Suzhou Soft Serve Baron.’

Mister Softee, the famed northeastern American ice cream truck, in Suzhou, China? Yes, that was a thing. Turner Sparks, rising from humble beginnings as just another English teacher making his way in the world, achieved fame and fortune thanks to a catchy jingle and some tasty mobile mango-flavored soft serve. Yet his vision of China-wide ice cream domination dissolved amid a deluge of backstabbing regulators, slashed tires, and stolen cones. Listen to learn about the circumstances that finally melted Turner’s ice cream dream.

The actual episode was even more fun. Check it out here.

In the wake of SMIC’s potential blacklisting, which could set the mainland chip industry back a decade, the Chinese internet has gone through another round of hand-wringing about the state of China’s basic scientific research.

The first article, published last week on a popular natural sciences account, immediately went viral. Often you see writers claim that China’s laggard status as a researcher is understandable, given that it started modernizing later. This piece takes issue with that line, quickly running through why this excuse doesn’t carry water in a handful of example industries. I’m just going to translate the conclusion, which sums up what the author considers to be the key issues with China’s research environment.

Did We Really Have a Late Start?

From semiconductors to the operating system, from engines to large aircraft, China really didn’t start any later...

The real reason for our struggles are:

Disrespect for originality

To borrow computer terms, it means "turning an open-source project into an ‘independent project’ to get research funding." We don’t respect originality and IP, and only care about realizing profits.

Not paying attention to researchers

Scientific researchers don’t make good wages. It’s not just that they make less than internet celebrities, but often “it’s better to sell boiled tea eggs than create the atomic bomb” [a famous saying from the Reform and Opening Era reflecting how many scientists felt betrayed by Deng’s shifting priorities.]

Problems in our management system

Internal management system responsibilities are not clearreward and punishment is not clear, we’re always hunting for a scapegoat.

Half-planned half-market deformity

Incomplete reform, rent-seeking power and the collusion between government and business have led to a vicious circle of market injustice.

Unreasonable subsidy system

Some things do need national support.

But now state industry support and subsidies come from personal relationships and are largely PR plays. This means that researchers that are the real deal have a hard time getting funding, and money ends up getting wasted.

What China should do is to seek truth from facts, improve market competition, ensure market competitionact in accordance with the law, and respect intellectual property rights instead of making excuses for itself by saying we just "started late.”

Next up is an article, originally posted anonymously by the head of a national Chinese science research institution, claims that a lazy, publication-driven form of research that he calls “punch-in” research is doing critical damage to the state of Chinese science research.

The author claims to speak for the true hearts of many in the scientific community when he argues that though Chinese science research may appear to be flourishing on the surface, underneath lies a deep crisis. The incentive structures that guide Chinese research, he says, have led a generation of Chinese researchers to publish a lot without achieving real innovation. “It is not just science research. All industries in our society operate this way,” the top commenter wrote. The article was first posted online in 2016 and recently went viral again, speaking to its continued resonance.

This article was translated by Coby Goldberg.

If China keeps playing around like this, Chinese science research has no future

I became a professor in my early 30s, a deputy director at the age of 35, and a director at the age of 40. My career went smoothly. So, I do not say the following because of any personal grudges. I have played the game quite well. But if my child’s generations still must play the game by these rules, that would be a real loss.

I am not alone in thinking this way. Many of my friends in the scientific community who spend their days seemingly content express the same concerns when we chat over a drink: If the game continues to be played by these rules, there is no future for Chinese science research.

At present, China's science research appears to be flourishing. But if you objectively compare China's science research with the rest of the world’s, taking a broad view of the matter, you will discover that among the scientists pioneering original theoretical research or major technological breakthroughs, there is a conspicuous absence of Chinese people.

Which of the advances that change our mode of production or life have been invented by us? On what basis could one claim that we as a country are technologically powerful?

The popular “punch-in research” method does great damage

Our STEM workers are feeling depressed. Chinese people are more hardworking than our foreign counterparts. When in dialogue with them, we do not feel inadequate or stupid. Moreover, the country has given us quite a bit of money and has invested no small amount of human capital.

Why, then, are we not a world leader in science and technology research? In my opinion, what restricts scientific research in China is the popular punch-in research method, which, to put it in harsh terms, is slavish.

Practitioners of punch-in research have the following features: they do not think independently about core contradictions and tough, foundational questions within a discipline, they follow international trends in order to focus on a hot topic, and they make unimportant additions to the theories of big-name scientists. People then take such minor achievements and call them "major breakthroughs" and examples of "international leadership," or even worse just repackage studies published in major journals and publish them in some irrelevant journal after making a few cosmetic changes to the study.

It is understandable to operate this way as a graduate student, but it is a bit sad to be doing so even once working independently. More tragic yet is the fact that, owing to the speed and “high efficiency” of this research method, its practitioners soon become the judges of what makes for valuable research. As judges, they look for any small holes in a paper in order to dismiss it and evaluate a researcher’s merit by the number of citations they have and the quantity of articles published. Over time, those who publish frequently on fashionable topics gain fame and fortune, while those who study real problems and actually create knowledge go unrecognized.

The current methods of evaluation ignore the fundamental value of science research

Research in our country is roughly divided into three categories: foundational theoretical research, applied foundational research, and engineering-focused technology research. Each has its own value.

Let's begin with foundational research. Foundational research belongs to the domain of science, and has the ultimate goal of exploring truth. Foundational research can be compared with art, that is to say its true value lies in looking at nature from a fresh perspective and understanding the world in a new way. In other words, the value of foundational research lies in the spirit of innovation. Like art, it can take many forms, but its value arises from the creation of something different from that which has come before. To do this sort of work, you cannot be a bootlicker or a hanger-on of the already famous. “Standing out from the masses,” this in and of itself can enrich the spirit of a nation. I believe the pursuit of “standing out from the masses” is the true value of science.

From a practical perspective, foundational research has no short-term use. It is a product of innovation that gives a fresh perspective on the world, and in doing so enhances the character of the nation. Therefore, foundational research should be judged by its quality, not its quantity. If we rely on imitation or pure quantity of research, we lose the essence of the work.

However, the assessment and evaluation systems in our country do not encourage researchers to go in this direction. We talk about innovation, but innovation is measured in terms of articles published.

I have been a judge of the Natural Science Foundation many times and have also been department head. The NSF evaluation system relies entirely on how many articles a researcher has published and the number of citations they have received. Every year, the National Science and Technology Award invites thousands of experts to comment on the works submitted. I often joke with the other judges: the NSF does not have call on us scientists to comment on these works, a few third-year university students would be able to do this same work.

Everyone knows the trick of how to get a lot published quickly. Suppose you are an expert in some field, and you come up with an original theory that a person’s appearance is determined by their parents’ genes. I will immediately follow your line of thinking: I think this is indeed true, but occasionally things turn out differently. Let’s say you think genes determine 65% of appearance, but my research concludes that the actual number is 67%, and is 63% for Asian people. My research would receive good publicity, and people would herald it as leading global innovation by creating a breakthrough based on an authoritative theory.

From an epistemological perspective, is this kind of work useful? Sure, it has use. But does it really fit the spirit of science? No. This kind of work merely produces the easiest results.

Of course, we cannot speak of the scientific spirit without regard for self-interest. It is unrealistic to expect people to martyr themselves for the true scientific value of pursuing truth. If I concerned myself only with pursuing truth at a young age, and after ten years of conducting research my peers had advanced in their careers while I mine had lagged, of course I would follow the same beaten path to get a good position. I’m not dumb!

But this direction is totally misguided and in fact incentives are the opposite of what the country ultimately seeks from the foundational research that it supports. In other words, this sort of calculation, which is entirely rational for each scientist to make, lowers the overall quality of the nation’s scientists, because no one dares to bring a fresh perspective or to an old problem.

The existing departmental system is only bringing us further away from achieving major scientific breakthroughs

 A lot of universities are competing to become world-class, so I asked them: What is the standard for measuring a world-class university? They said that the measure is the number of papers published by the university.

This creates a strange dynamic: a country’s science system should have an overall structure that incentives the country’s researchers to reach the peak of whatever field the country considers important. But with the quantity of papers published as the measure, everyone pursues whatever topic is hot and easy to publish articles on. 

For example, researchers working on Aeronautical Materials might chose to study nanotechnology because it is easy to publish articles and accrue citations in that field. But China is the world largest steel exporter and importer, and people should really be pursuing steel research! At a recent forum on bullet train technology, the question arose of whether our country could produce a new train wheel. Even though it could seemingly be done, no one dares to do it. Abroad, a wheel would have to be tested under many different loads over many years as it is developed. In China, you would likely be dismissed from your school or research institute before the experiment is finished because you have been spending so many years on a non-fashionable topic.

Major breakthrough requires that people withstand a relatively difficult ten- or twenty-year period of silence in which little progress appears to be made. In foreign countries, there are many people who have made no big discoveries in ten or twenty years, but because of their reputation in the field their personal income is not affected. Everyone trusts in their wisdom and allows them time to reach a conclusion.

It is really frightening how punch-in research makes real innovation harder and harder to achieve. 

Our scientists are losing the ability to appreciate good science

Take the NSF review system. When applying for funds, you have to be taking on a hot topic so that the judges will feel that you are at the frontiers of research. If you propose to research a not hot topic, there will always be some judge who disapproves of the project. With so many projects to review, it is hard to discover hidden value in projects shot down by others, so once one judge finds reason to object to a project it has little hope for advancing.

Original ideas, meanwhile, will often conflict with the preconceptions held by at least one judge. Let’s say that my past work proves that cups are round, but you come along and argue that cups, viewed from another perspective, cannot be described as “round.” I, as a judge, will instinctively reject your proposal. But if you instead say, Teacher Xu said that cups are round, and I want to see if, on the basis of his great theory, cups are strictly round or 99% round, I will be put in a good mood and approve your project.

Over time, scientists lose their ability to appreciate science. In artistic terms, it is as if our country does not only lack art, but also connoisseurs, people with aesthetic taste. The result is that critics will find bold new paintings inferior to copies of an old work, judging the former by how much it conforms to norms and international standards instead of by its originality.

If a country loses its ability to judge good science, how can it innovate?

Research in China is already in decline

There is a deeper problem. The people who are now the big-name scientists grew up in the system I have described. They were able to adapt most quickly to this system, and now perhaps are big academics or department heads. Perhaps when they wake up in the middle of the night, they know that what is happening is wrong, but saying so would threaten their core interests. Everyone knows what I have said, and no one dares to say it.

The age at which people have the most creative power is the age at which they must focus most on pursuing self-interest; after establishing a name for themselves, they might immediately try to do some real scientific work. But by the time you are fifty, it is difficult to achieve real creative results. Young people have no preconceived prejudices, but by the time you turn fifty you have read too much to come up with a bold new idea. Yet young people, for their part, must do as their teachers are doing, lest they be let go.

This situation is not easy to change. These people are now occupying such advantageous positions, that even should they know what is right in their hearts, they will never admit to the system’s flaws. The incentive structures meant to advance foundational research in our country are hastening its decline.

Says Alexey Guzey, who wrote a fantastic exploration of similar dynamics in the west, “just from reading this, feels like American science mandarins could write something very similar about US science.”

China Twitter Tweets of the Week

Opposites attract—the Chinese government has tried to incentivize ancient Chinese culture in its games as well.

I don’t see how the US-China relationship improves until Xi leaves.