Friday, November 6, 2015

Science in China –feeding the juggernaut*

For those of us involved in scientific research, especially those that edit journals, review manuscripts or read published papers, it is obvious that there has been a fundamental transformation in the scientific output coming from China. Both the number and quality of papers have drastically increased over the past 5-10 years. China is poised to become a global leader in not only scientific output, but also in the ideas, hypotheses and theories that shape modern scientific investigation.

I have been living in China for a couple of months now (and will be here for 7 months more), working in a laboratory at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and I have been trying to identify the reasons for this shift in scientific culture in China. Moreover, I see evidence that China will soon be a science juggernaut (or already is), and there are clear reasons why this is. Here are some reasons why I believe that China has become a science leader, and there are lessons for other national systems.

The reasons for China’s science success:

1.      University culture.

China is a country with a long history of scholarly endeavours. We can look to the philosophical traditions of Confucius 2500 years ago as a prime example of the respect and admiration of scholarly traditions. Though modern universities are younger in China than elsewhere (the oldest being about 130 years old), China has invested heavily in building Universities throughout the country. In the mid-1990s, the government built 100 new universities in China, and now graduates more than 6 million students every year from undergraduate programs.
Confucius (551-479 BC), the grand-pappy of all Chinese scholars

This rapid increase in the number of universities means that many are very modern with state-of-the-art facilities. This availability of infrastructure has fostered the growth of new colleges, institutes and departments, meaning that new faculty and staff have been hired. Many departments that I have visited have large numbers of younger Assistant and Associate Professors, many having been trained elsewhere, that approach scientific problems with energy and new ideas.
My new digs

2.      Funding

From my conversations with various scientists, labs are typically very well funded. With the expansion of the number of universities seems to have been an expansion in funds available for research projects. Professors need to write a fair number of grant proposals to have all of their projects funded, but it seems that success rates are relatively high, and with larger grants available to more senior researchers. This is in stark contrast to other countries, where funding is inadequate. In the USA, National Science Foundation funding rates are often below 10% (only 1 in 10 proposals are funded). This abysmal funding rate means that good, well-trained researchers are either not able to realize their ideas or spend too much of their time applying for funding. In China, new researchers are given opportunities to succeed.

3.      Collaboration

Chinese researchers are very collaborative. There are several national level ecological research networks (e.g., dynamic forest plots) that involve researchers from many institutions, as well as international collaborative projects (e.g., BEF China). In my visits to different universities, Chinese researchers are very eager to discuss shared research interests and explore the potential for collaboration. Further, there are a number of funding schemes to get students, postdocs and junior Professors out of China and into foreign labs, which promotes international collaboration. Collaborations provide the creative capital for new ideas, and allow for larger, more expansive research projects.

4.      Environmental problems

It is safe to say that the environment in China has been greatly impacted by economic growth and development over the past 30 years. This degradation of the environment has made ecological science extremely relevant to the management of natural resources and dealing with contaminated soil, air and water. Ecological research appears to have a relatively high profile in China and is well supported by government funding and agencies.

5.      Laboratory culture

In my lab in Canada, I give my students a great deal of freedom to pursue their own ideas and allow them much latitude in how they do it. Some students say that they work best at night, others in spurts, and some just like to have four-day weekends every week. While Chinese students seem equally able to pursue their own ideas and interests, students tend to have more strict requirements about how they do their work. Students are often expected to be in the lab from 9-5 (at least) and often six days a week. This expectation is not seen as demanding or unreasonable (as it probably would be in the US or Canada), but rather in line with general expectations for success (see next point).

Labs are larger in China. The lab I work in has about 25 Masters students and a further 6 PhD students, plus postdocs and technicians. Further, labs typically have a head professor and several Assistant or Associate Professors. When everyone is there everyday, there is definitely a vibe and culture that emerges that is not possible if everyone is off doing their own thing.

The lab I'm working in -"the intellectual factory"

Another major difference is that there is a clear hierarchy of respect. Masters students are expected to respect and listen to PhD students, PhD students respect postdocs and so on up to the head professor. This respect is fundamental to interactions among people. As it has been described to me, the Professor is not like your friend, but more like a father that you should listen to.

What’s clear is that lab culture and expectations are built around the success of the individual people and the overall lab. And success is very important –see next point.

6.      Researcher/student expectations

I left the expectations on researchers for last because this needs a longer and more nuanced discussion. My own view of strict expectations has changed since coming to China, and I can now see the motivating effect these can have.

For Chinese researchers it is safe to say that publications are gold. Publishing papers, and especially the type of journal those papers appear determine career success in a direct way. A masters student is required to publish one paper, which could be in a local Chinese journal. A PhD student is required to publish two papers in international journals. PhD students who receive a 2-year fellowship to travel to foreign labs are required to publish a paper from that work as well. For researchers to get a professor position, they must have a certain number of publications in high-impact international journals (e.g., Impact Factor above 5).

Professors are not immune from these types of expectations. Junior professors are not tenured, nor are they able to get tenure until they qualify for the next tier, and they need to constantly publish. To get a permanent position as a full professor or group leader, they need to have a certain number of high impact papers. For funding applications, their publication records are quantified (number and impact factors of journals) and they must surpass some threshold.

Of course in any country, your publication record is the most important component for your success as a researcher, but in China the expectations are clearly stated.

While there are pros and cons of such a reward based system, and certainly the pressure can be overwhelming, I’ve witnessed the results of this system. Students are extremely motivated and have a clear idea what it means to be successful. To get two publications in a four year PhD requires a lot of focus and hard work; there is no time for drifting or procrastinating.

So why has Chinese science been so successful? It is because a number of factors have coalesced around and support a general high demand for success. Regardless of the number of institutional and funding resources available, this success is only truly realized because of researchers' desire to exceed strict expectations. And they are doing so wonderfully.  

*over the next several months I will write a series of posts on science and the environment in China


Caroline Tucker said...

This was posted on a different post, but was meant for this one:

"One of the strengths of the 'work-life' balance emphasis in American (at least, Canadian) scientific culture is that is allows students and faculty to be good at other things aside from their work. This balance in my experience can often improve science through fostering creativity. I'm wondering if the stress on long hours and weeks can eat into that time for self-development. Do group leaders in China encourage students to take on hobbies outside of work?"

Jean said...

I spend my 2012-2013 sabbatical at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Lanzhou University and had a great time. We should compare notes sometime.

Victor Saito said...

Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing this experience!
I have some additional ideas for why chinese students are so motivated. I am a phD student in Brazil and now I am doing part of my research in France, where sometimes I exchange ideas with chinese students. I think they have something in common with brazilian students, which result from the fact that in both countries a successful carreer in academia can make a big difference in your life quality and of your family. Tenure jobs in Brazil pay you enough to have a house and sustain for your family a fair life and several other jobs in Brazil don’t. They told me that is also the case in China. I recognize that fail to get tenured in academic career in developed countries should, in most of case, affect your life quality, but I really think that this difference is larger in places like Brazil and China, where you can have very bad life quality even if you have a PhD.

Marc Cadotte said...

Thanks Victor -definitely there are other motivations for people to succeed.