science in China

Not too long ago, China was 14th in the world for the number of scientific studies published. Now, according to the National Academy of Sciences, they’re second only to the United States.

In your face, Germany! And everywhere else.

I have the extraordinary and unbelievable privilege of working at the top biological institute in China. Extraordinary, because I’m the first—and up until recently the only—non-Chinese postdoc the Institute has ever had. Unbelievable, because, well, I’m really not that great of a scientist. The only reason I got the job is because I’m a Westerner, and right now they really want more Westerners to come and do science in China.

There’s a huge push in China right now to make science a national priority, and the Institute is an example of this. Because while most researchers have to spend a good chunk of their time and energy writing grants and looking for funding, the heads of the research groups at the Institute are basically just handed money from the government and told to go do science.

Of course, the heads of the research groups at the Institute are no ordinary scientists. They’re basically the top people—or nearly so—in their respective fields. And while none of them has ever won a Nobel Prize (yet), I’m pretty confident that within the next 5-10 years at least one of them is going to.

The funny thing is, every single one of them was educated in America.

And this is where I think America is making a huge mistake. Because while China (and India, and South Korea) are substantially increasing their investments in science and engineering, America is actually talking about cutting back on funding for science. And if that’s not bad enough, the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology is currently being filled by people who, to say the least, are not exactly friends of the scientific community.

But there’s another far more subtle mistake I think America is making. A few months ago I met a very talented researcher from a University in Hong Kong. Like so many Chinese scientists he was educated in America, but was unable to find a permanent position in the States because he was Chinese, and had worked for a Chinese boss. Apparently there’s still a mindset in America that Chinese are very intelligent and hard-working, but narrow-minded, uncreative, and unable to think critically. As a result, many highly qualified and skilled Chinese scientists can’t find employment in the States.

Of course, China is more than happy to welcome them back.

Ironically, if you want to get a good research position in China, you have to do your PhD—or at least a postdoc or two—in America. Despite the growing prestige of places like Peking University and Tsinghua University (essentially the Harvard and MIT of China), it’s still believed that the best place you can get an education to prepare yourself for a career in science is in the United States.

At least for now.

Education in China is still primarily based on rote memorization, but I think that’s starting to change. As more and more Chinese people get exposed to Western education, they’re going to increasingly demand that their own children are taught critical thinking and problem-solving skills, in addition to the memorization of facts.

Regardless, I can honestly say without any feeling of shame that I am the single dumbest, most ignorant person in my research group. Because despite having gone through the Chinese education system, everyone I work with is freaking brilliant, dedicated, and in no way lacking critical thinking skills. In fact, the only advantage I have over my colleagues is that I’m a native English speaker. Which means I can read a scientific paper in a fraction of the time, and I can write a scientific paper better than anyone else in my group—including my boss.

But this advantage is fleeting. Every day the Chinese are improving their English skills, and every day they’re putting out more scientific papers. America may be number one at the moment, but if we’re not careful, China (and India, and South Korea) are going to fly right by us, maybe giving a condescending, “Thanks for all the help,” as they pass.

And maybe that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. America needs something to inspire us to value science and education, and if it takes China becoming the world leader in science, so be it. Because the thing is, when countries compete for scientific prestige, everybody wins.

But I’m glad I’m here learning Chinese and making connections in the scientific community of China, just in case.

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About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

2 Responses to science in China

  1. J. Johns says:

    Alternatively, I see this post as a call for educational warfare if the US cannot make such gains (which it won’t so long as education is seen as a social service rather than an economic stimulator). I suggest that we quickly launch our most effective educational bomb on the Chinese–the SIMMS math curriculum. Let the Chinese adopt it and then watch their talents in mathematics slip to the equal of, well, the US!!!

    Enjoy Chinese prison.

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