China keeps sending its talents abroad in the hope that they will eventually return and contribute to the advancement of science at home. After decades of ambitious brain gain programmes, China has to recognise that reforms in education and science have to be put into practice now, in order to benefit most of the new arrivals and to retain them for the longer term.
With respect to research and science there are two types of news from China that are covered repeatedly by the international media. On the one hand, there is a growing number of reports on publications in top-tier journals revealing technological or scientific breakthroughs. This indicates that China is on the right track and that its efforts and investments for high-quality output are already beginning to bear fruit. On the other hand, the news is targeting the Chinese research system, which seems to be a rich and never-ending source for scandals, including corruption, the anything but transparent allocation of research funds as well as scientific fraud.
Whereas the media are blamed for making a big deal out of isolated cases, critical voices complain that there is a systemic foulness and call for a radical overhaul of China’s whole research system. But who should start cleaning out the Agean stables? As long as there are bureaucrats, administrators and scientists, who take undue advantage with little chance of being held personally accountable, profound changes are highly unlikely. China’s new President Xi Jinping, who has been in office for less than a year now, was expected to push through reforms but so far is focusing on economic and social issues. In the second of the two-part series on China, Lab Times will focus on China’s efforts to revamp its higher education system by establishing world-class, research-intensive universities and by expanding its national and international talent pool.
No Chinese researcher has ever won a Nobel Prize in the sciences without leaving his home country. A homegrown Nobel Laureate has featured on the wish list of China’s political leaders for years and has definitely more prestige than a couple of successful space missions or dozens of Olympic gold medals. A Nobel Prize would be the ultimate proof for the capacity and superiority of China’s education and science system and also justify the past and future double-digit growth rates of the public research budget. For now, China has to continue pocketing and celebrating Nobel Laureates either with China as birthplace or with Chinese ethnicity. For example, the Swiss American and Shanghai-born biochemist Edmond Fischer was awarded the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine together with Edwin Krebs for reversible protein phosphorylation in 1992 and the Japanese Changchun-born Ei-ichi-Negishi received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for palladium-catalysed cross couplings in organic syntheses in 2010. Ethnic Chinese Laureates were either born in the US, such as Roger Tsien, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein. Or they pursued their postgraduate education and subsequent career at primary institutions in the US or UK, where they also became citizens, as for example the father of fibre optics, Charles Kuen Kao (Nobel Prize in Physics 2009).
Many conspiracy theories are in circulation speculating as to why Chinese scientists have been almost totally ignored by Stockholm, so far. One reason is the rather short history of the modern research and science system in China, which started from nadir after the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s. Another point quite often raised is that the whole Chinese education and science system impedes or even destroys any creativity, curiosity, risk taking and independent thinking that may be required for excellence in research.
For the meantime, the Taiwanese billionaire Samuel Yin has announced a kind of Asian Nobel Prize. In an interview for BBC News Asia he revealed that his motivation for the prize is to promote Chinese culture and to encourage research beneficial to humankind. Roughly €75 million of his own assets have been used to set up the Tang Prize Foundation. Prizes worth €1.25 million will be bestowed every two years in the four disciplines: Chinese studies, sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science and rule of law. In comparison to the Nobel Prize proper, which is worth €0.9 million, the Tang Prize includes a five-year research grant of €0.25 million. The National Academy of Taiwan, the Academica Sinica, is in charge of the nomination and selection process and assisted by internationally leading experts. The first winners will be announced this June.
Establishing a number of Chinese research universities with international standing became a dire necessity in the late 1990s. It was provoked by the poor visibility of Chinese universities in global rankings as well as by China’s transition from elite to mass education, which led to an uncontrolled expansion and more than 2,000 institutions in the higher education sector. The mixture of strategies applied included primarily the upgrade of institutions with existing international reputation and the combination of forces and creation of synergies by mergers of universities and colleges, and to a lesser extent the establishment of de novo institutions.
Two major programmes, Project 211 and 985, which are both ongoing, were initiated. Project 211 was initiated by the Ministry of Education in 1995 during the preparation of the ninth five-year Plan of the People’s Republic of China (1996-2000). Its name was derived from the goal to establish in the 21st century 100 top-notch universities in China. Main policy priorities of the programme have been to push high quality education and research, to train human capital and raise PhD numbers as well as to recruit outstanding researchers. At the level of the individual university, the improvement of its overall institutional capacity and infrastructure as well as the development of key discipline areas were promoted with extra funds, whereas at the systemic level a national service system for higher education was created. Examples for the latter include the installment of the Chinese Education and Research Network (CERNET), the Modern Equipment and Facilities Sharing System (MEFSS) or the Library and Documentation Support System (LDSS).
University applications in the 211 programme were pre-screened at the local level and evaluated jointly by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Finance and the National Development and Reform Commission. In the two, first five-year periods approximately €3.6 billion in total were allocated by the central and local governments as well as by own funds of the universities. However, if one makes a rough estimate on the average distribution, the cash injections amounted to just €3.6 million per university and year, which is not that much. But in parallel, additional funding programmes of the Ministry of Science and Technology such as the National High Technology Programme (code 863) or the National Basic Research Programme (code 973) poured money into the same universities and led, for example, to the establishment of several National Laboratories and hundreds of Key Laboratories receiving priority funding. In the ongoing funding period of Project 211 further admissions of new universities are not allowed. The current level of support as well as the duration is unclear, although it is obvious that continuous support is needed in future to stay competitive and further advance.
The Chinese website of the Ministry of Education is listing at present 117 institutions of Project 211, most of which are concentrated around Beijing (26), Jiangsu (11) and Shanghai (9). Among the 117 universities 86 have been qualified to recruit international students. An evaluation revealed that the 211 institutions numerically account for roughly six percent of all universities in China but are in charge of the training for 80% of all PhD students, two-thirds of graduate students and more than half of all students from abroad. In addition, they are home to 96% of the State’s Key Labs and account for more than 70% of public funds used for R&D in China.
Although many research activities of the 211 institutions are still indirectly or directly connected to institutions or members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences the research capacity as well as the research output in quantity and quality of the universities was dramatically enhanced in the past decade. The programme was criticised for establishing a system with lighthouse research universities, drawing resources after the Matthew principle (“the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer”). Hundreds of second and third tier teaching-only institutions complained that they were locked out from participating in the reform process of the 211 universities and the competition to attract talented students or high calibre expats. In addition, by the large investments into 211 universities, preferentially located in China’s East with one-third of the land area and 96% of the population, the large imbalance to the sparsely populated West was augmented.