The Reality of Chinese Scientific Research

CommentaryA perennial question about the rise of communist China is how much of a scientific power it has. Leaving aside politics, how to measure scientific output, impact, and quality is an incredibly difficult question.So how good is Chinese scientific research and output?Measuring scientific research and its multiple facets is hard, even in the best circumstances. For example, Katalin Karikó, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for her work in mRNA vaccines last year, was previously denied tenure and effectively forced out of the University of Pennsylvania because her research showed no promise.Many universities incentivize researchers to focus on the volume of output, but this ends up producing enormous amounts of low-quality work published in low-quality or pay-for-publication journals. If quantity is not the answer, how does one measure quality? One measure that academics use is citation count by other researchers. However, this is problematic as many pieces are highly cited for being wrong, just as one example. Top-rated journals are known to have serious publication issues, ranging from prioritizing friends and colleagues in exchange for publication elsewhere to failing to check data, allowing researchers to produce research that fails to hold up under scrutiny.So how should we understand claims that China is the premier science superpower in the world?Related StoriesHaving worked for nearly a decade at Peking University in China, I feel comfortable admitting that China has made scientific advancements. Dating back almost two decades, Beijing prioritized investing vast sums of money in hiring researchers across all disciplines from China and around the world to boost research and output. The colleagues I met and worked with across disciplines had all attended excellent schools and engaged in high-quality research.However, there was a downside. The vast sums of money came with enormous pressure to publish or leave. There were cases of research misconduct and churning out low-quality papers to ensure passing research reviews. In China, professors and others, including non-violent prisoners, can advance by holding patents. Consequently, this has led to a flood of worthless patents and a bustling secondary market where people can purchase patents to boost their careers.Just recently, some Chinese professors released research about the pressures universities face. Based on interviews with professors and graduate students from across China, their findings were somewhat expected but still startling. Given the pressure on university leadership to produce world-class institutions, deans actively looked the other way or chose not to delve into research quality. As a university leader noted in the article, “We should not be overly stringent in identifying and punishing research misconduct.”In fairness, foreign academics struggle with the same pressures, such as dealing with research scandals involving fabricated data at prominent American universities. The pressures on faculty to produce research are the same worldwide, and U.S. administrators have only recently woken up to reviewing research integrity problems. However, due to various issues such as plagiarism to fabricated data, retracted papers from journals come overwhelmingly from Chinese universities and institutions.To complicate matters, there are absolute pockets of excellence in Chinese scientific research. In certain areas of hard sciences, such as physics, biology, and computer science, some Chinese scientists are truly at the forefront of what is happening worldwide.Because of all the difficulties in measuring quality and output in scientific research, what really matters is how this gets translated into advanced products, output, and ideas. If we take that as the broader metric, China lags significantly behind other countries. Even Beijing has recently voiced concern that the United States is the clear global leader in artificial intelligence. As Beijing noted, China is borrowing U.S.-based models and updating them for the Chinese market. In fact, notable Chinese start-ups use open-source code and are packaged for the Chinese market. This causes consternation in Beijing as a matter of national pride and because Chinese authorities worry that China will continue to lag behind the United States despite all those papers.Chinese scientific research has undoubtedly advanced significantly. This comes from the rapid improvement in human capital, advanced degrees, and growth in funding for research. However, Chinese scientific research suffers from the same malaise infecting society writ large in China: a stultifying party state that controls everything and centralizes output targets with little thought to the distortions it introduces or whether those outputs produce anything worthwhile. Even the corruption seen in the state is mirrored in the Chinese university. ChatGPT written papers and fake data seem like they could come directly from the regime.Chi

The Reality of Chinese Scientific Research

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Commentary

A perennial question about the rise of communist China is how much of a scientific power it has. Leaving aside politics, how to measure scientific output, impact, and quality is an incredibly difficult question.

So how good is Chinese scientific research and output?

Measuring scientific research and its multiple facets is hard, even in the best circumstances. For example, Katalin Karikó, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for her work in mRNA vaccines last year, was previously denied tenure and effectively forced out of the University of Pennsylvania because her research showed no promise.

Many universities incentivize researchers to focus on the volume of output, but this ends up producing enormous amounts of low-quality work published in low-quality or pay-for-publication journals. If quantity is not the answer, how does one measure quality? One measure that academics use is citation count by other researchers. However, this is problematic as many pieces are highly cited for being wrong, just as one example. Top-rated journals are known to have serious publication issues, ranging from prioritizing friends and colleagues in exchange for publication elsewhere to failing to check data, allowing researchers to produce research that fails to hold up under scrutiny.

So how should we understand claims that China is the premier science superpower in the world?

Having worked for nearly a decade at Peking University in China, I feel comfortable admitting that China has made scientific advancements. Dating back almost two decades, Beijing prioritized investing vast sums of money in hiring researchers across all disciplines from China and around the world to boost research and output. The colleagues I met and worked with across disciplines had all attended excellent schools and engaged in high-quality research.

However, there was a downside. The vast sums of money came with enormous pressure to publish or leave. There were cases of research misconduct and churning out low-quality papers to ensure passing research reviews. In China, professors and others, including non-violent prisoners, can advance by holding patents. Consequently, this has led to a flood of worthless patents and a bustling secondary market where people can purchase patents to boost their careers.

Just recently, some Chinese professors released research about the pressures universities face. Based on interviews with professors and graduate students from across China, their findings were somewhat expected but still startling. Given the pressure on university leadership to produce world-class institutions, deans actively looked the other way or chose not to delve into research quality. As a university leader noted in the article, “We should not be overly stringent in identifying and punishing research misconduct.”

In fairness, foreign academics struggle with the same pressures, such as dealing with research scandals involving fabricated data at prominent American universities. The pressures on faculty to produce research are the same worldwide, and U.S. administrators have only recently woken up to reviewing research integrity problems. However, due to various issues such as plagiarism to fabricated data, retracted papers from journals come overwhelmingly from Chinese universities and institutions.

To complicate matters, there are absolute pockets of excellence in Chinese scientific research. In certain areas of hard sciences, such as physics, biology, and computer science, some Chinese scientists are truly at the forefront of what is happening worldwide.

Because of all the difficulties in measuring quality and output in scientific research, what really matters is how this gets translated into advanced products, output, and ideas. If we take that as the broader metric, China lags significantly behind other countries. Even Beijing has recently voiced concern that the United States is the clear global leader in artificial intelligence. As Beijing noted, China is borrowing U.S.-based models and updating them for the Chinese market. In fact, notable Chinese start-ups use open-source code and are packaged for the Chinese market. This causes consternation in Beijing as a matter of national pride and because Chinese authorities worry that China will continue to lag behind the United States despite all those papers.

Chinese scientific research has undoubtedly advanced significantly. This comes from the rapid improvement in human capital, advanced degrees, and growth in funding for research. However, Chinese scientific research suffers from the same malaise infecting society writ large in China: a stultifying party state that controls everything and centralizes output targets with little thought to the distortions it introduces or whether those outputs produce anything worthwhile. Even the corruption seen in the state is mirrored in the Chinese university. ChatGPT written papers and fake data seem like they could come directly from the regime.

China has advanced significantly but should not be considered a scientific superpower.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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