China is set to beat the US for top STEM research. Here's why.
The transformative powers of China's "sea turtle". Source: Shutterstock

Forty years ago, China sent huge cohorts of students off to study abroad.

Then, Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping argued this wasn’t a flight for human capital, but rather an investment that would eventually return to make the country more educated and innovative.

“We need to send tens of thousands,” Deng said. “This is one of the key ways of…improving our level of scientific education.”

A recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research proved the politician right. China now accounts for about 23 percent of scientific publications in the international journals
indexed by Scopus, adjusted for the Chinese share of addresses or names on publications. This means the nation is now the “largest contributor to global science”.

While Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is still the leading institute within the top one percent of STEM papers, Simon Marginson of Oxford University said China’s Tsinghua University (the country’s equivalent of Oxbridge) is on track to be “number one in five years or less,” The Economist reports.

Student mobility assisted the astounding leap within this short time period.

“Those intellectuals played a very important role, changing the whole climate, raising standards,” says Yang Bin, Vice President for Tsinghua. More specifically, it was the “hai gui” (a Chinese word for  that sounds like the word for “sea turtle”), the Chinese citizens who returned to mainland China after having studied abroad for several years, who inspired this positive transformation.

They have incentives, too. Chinese academics are getting paid more for producing high-quality research. In China, cash-per-publication is common and those published in top Western journals can rake in more than US$100,000 per paper, according to a study by Wei Quan at Wuhan University, Bikun Chen at Nanjing University of Science and Technology, and Fei Shu at McGill University in Montreal. Such a system is unheard of among Western scientists.

“For them, science is venerated as a search for truth that is unaffected by self-interest,” said a commentary in MIT Technology Review.

It was Nanjing University that started this practice around 1990, offering US$25 per published paper. By the mid-1990s, this went up to US$120. In 2016, US$165,000 was the highest payment received.

“The reward value for a JASIST paper is equal to a single year’s salary for a newly hired professor while the cash award for a Nature or Science article is up to 20 times a university professor’s average annual salary,” say Wei and co.

Six-figure salaries help pull these “sea turtles” back, The Economist notes. Dean of Tsinghua’s School of Economics and Management Qian Yingyi, and Dean of Tsinghua’s School of Life Sciences Shi Yigong’s attended elite US Ivy League institutions before returning to the mainland. The star “sea turtles” in China’s academia today are credited for bringing Tsinghua to the top of the global research league.

The problem now is whether that’s enough. There are signs that the use of financial incentives can skew a country’s development. A disproportionate focus on getting published also leads to more short-term research projects being prioritised over of longer-term work, which then leads to more important breakthroughs or bigger awards like the Nobel Prize. Monetary reward can also push some to cut corners, resorting to plagiarism, ghost-writing, academic dishonesty, etc. according to Wei and co.

The country is making moves to counter this issue. This May, the first national guidelines to enforce academic integrity in scientific research was issued, according to the South China Morning Post. Those who plagiarise and falsify data will be punished for academic misconduct.

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