Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stated his goal of turning the country into a “science and technology superpower.” But when it comes to China’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research environment, recently published research suggests they may have a long way to go.
Richard P. Appelbaum, Distinguished Research Professor at UC Santa Barbara, former MacArthur Chair in Sociology and Global and International Studies, and Xueying Han, former Postdoctoral Fellow at UCSB who now works for Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, DC, co-authored the first comprehensive quantitative analysis of the STEM research environment in China.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, explores the key challenges facing this burgeoning field of Chinese higher education as the nation strives to become an academic superpower. While previous research has relied on anecdotal accounts and small focus groups, Appelbaum and Han collected data from 731 surveys completed by STEM professors at China’s top 25 universities. They sought to understand not only the problems facing the country’s top researchers, but also how government policies might affect their ability to innovate.
“Our research shows that the Chinese education system stifles the creativity and critical thinking necessary to achieve innovative breakthroughs, too often hinders researchers with bureaucratic demands, and rewards quantity rather than quality,” Appelbaum said. “China’s emphasis on rote learning and memorization reinforces this, as does the strong cultural emphasis on respect for authority.”
Among other concerns, the study explores two major relationship issues in Chinese higher education: the perceived bias towards foreign degree holders and the existence of exclusionary seeking cliques. “Previous studies have suggested that foreign degree holders enjoy a number of advantages – higher salaries, easier access to promotions, more laboratory space – compared to their domestic counterparts,” Han said. “But we found out that Chinese degree holders also believed that a foreign degree would give you better recognition from your colleagues. In China, recognition from colleagues plays a very important role because it influences other people with whom you interact, and this recognition could open doors that may not be available to national degree holders. ”
Appelbaum and Han also felt a tension between China’s interest in competing with Western countries and its nationalist policies. “Our main takeaway is that if China is to make this transition successfully, it still has a very long way to go,” Han said. “This is because the challenges facing the research environment in China are not things that can be easily solved with money. They are cultural challenges, and it’s going to require a major shift in mindset. “
The researchers, who completed the project while working for the former National Science Foundation-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society and based at UCSB, see their research as a benchmark, establishing the atmosphere of the environment. China’s current STEM in higher education so that future studies can compare and contrast. “Our study should be replicated in China, by a Chinese university, as part of an open investigation that protects confidentiality and encourages a high response rate,” Appelbaum said.
The team also hopes their findings will serve as an impetus for a change in the focus of Chinese higher education measures. “The Chinese government would do well to take our findings seriously,” Appelbaum said. “They should monitor the progress of reforming the education system to encourage more creative and innovative thinking, rather than just counting publications and patents.”
“We sincerely hope that someone in the Chinese government who can make changes will see this study and see that there is a collective voice among Chinese teachers,” Han commented.
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