“China is at the forefront of medicine and hi-tech and computing.” So said UK Chancellor George Osborne, who recently visited the country. Global tests for 15-year-olds show the youth of Shanghai are comfortably outperforming the rest of the world in science, as well as in reading and maths. Breathless media reports routinely refer to China as a “new scientific superpower”.
Headlines and sound bites would have you believe that China has already succeeded in transforming itself into an innovation-powered economy. Yet serious questions persist over China’s true capacity to create. And no one is more aware of its limitations than Chinese people themselves.
Triumph in the Nobel science category has become entwined in China’s resurgent nationalism, a national priority on par with the hosting of a successful Olympics or landing a spacecraft on the moon. That Mo Yan, a mainland Chinese writer, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2012 in many ways magnified the government’s frustration. After all Chinese writers develop their craft in a constrained, illiberal environment, while leading scientists have access to limitless financial resources.
Acute insecurity in China reached fever pitch during last week’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies. The Communist Party has long craved a homegrown Nobel science prize, as evidence of a technological power to match its economic might and a vindication of the astonishing £243bn China has poured into the development of science and technology in the last seven years. Another year passes, another unsuccessful bid. The reality is that no Nobel science winner has been a product of China’s education system.
There are many reasons for China’s failure to win the prestigious award. An education system enslaved to rote learning and test scores is one. Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Beijing’s Peking University, insists that no matter what university you study at – Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale – you have no chance of winning a Nobel Prize for science if you have spent your first 12 years in a Chinese school. An exaggeration perhaps but the premise of his argument is sound: individuality, curiosity, imagination and creativity are simply expunged by the Chinese education system.
Down the wrong pipe
There is a paucity of excellent Chinese scientists. Confucian doctrine teaches that “a good scholar will make an official” and some of the best scientists are more than willing to leave their labs for respected administrative roles that are probably tied to enormous resources.
Entrenched political and social barriers hinder progress. The Chinese academic system binds students to their mentors. Mentors are authority figures as formidable as strict parents, and to challenge them is unacceptable. This blind loyalty discourages criticism of senior academics and the science they advocate.
Chinese scientists complain the allocation of research funding is not meritocratic. There is little encouragement for scepticism towards existing theories, especially when those theories are propounded by senior academics that hold the departmental purse strings.
Equally, there are few incentives for researchers to risk exploring the unknown, as the system does not tolerate “failure” in research terms. Consequently Chinese scientists are more likely to conduct research that yields quick and achievable outcomes, rather than fostering grander aspirations for the advancement of knowledge.
All these factors converge to create one fundamental obstacle to China’s pursuit of a Nobel science prize: it is simply unable to embrace the values that underpin it.
In rewarding those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”, the Nobel Prize in science embodies an appreciation and celebration of not merely breakthroughs, discoveries and creativity but a universal set of values that are shared and practised by scientists regardless of nationality or culture. It is recognition of the latter that can achieve the former.
Revolutions happen for a reason
China’s embrace of science only dates back to the May Fourth Demonstrations in 1919 when scholars, disillusioned with the direction of the new Chinese republic following the fall of the Qing Dynasty, called for a move away from traditional Chinese culture to Western ideals – or, as they termed it, “a rejection of Mr Confucius and the acceptance of Mr Science and Mr Democracy”.
But these concepts of science and democracy differed markedly from those advocated in the West and were used primarily as vehicles to attack Confucianism. The science championed during the May Fourth movement was celebrated not for its Enlightenment values but for its pragmatism, its usefulness.
Francis Bacon’s maxim “knowledge is power” ran right through Mao Zedong’s view of science following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Science and technology were considered as integral components of nation-building: leading academics contributed their knowledge for the sole purpose of modernising industry, agriculture and national defence.
The notion of saving the nation through science during the nationalist regime in the 1920s and 1930s has translated into current communist government policies of “revitalising the nation with science, technology and education” and “strengthening the nation through talent”. A report by Nesta in October argued that China should be regarded as “an absorptive state”, adding practical value to existing foreign technologies rather than creating novel technologies of its own.
This materialistic emphasis reflects the use of science as a means to a political end to make China powerful and prosperous. However a series of high-profile fraud scandals involving leading scientists at China’s top academic institutions have raised concerns over this highly utilitarian view of science. They have led to calls for China to truly embrace the universal values of science as a means to take the country forward.
These core values of truth-seeking, integrity, intellectual curiosity, the challenging of authority and, above all, freedom of inquiry are shared by scientists all over the world. In this sense there is no such thing as “Chinese” science or “British science”, or science “with Chinese characteristics”.
On his latest visit to Beijing, US vice president Joe Biden told a group of young Chinese that “innovation can only occur when you breathe free” and that “children in America are rewarded – not punished – for challenging the status quo”.
The Chinese leadership would do well to apply these principles to the nurturing of its next generation of scientists. Only when it abandons cold-blooded pragmatism for a value-driven approach to science can it hope to win a coveted Nobel prize and ascend to real superpower status.