Why China hasn't produced Nobel Prize winners in science

By Cai Wenjun and Liang Yiwen
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, November 22, 2012
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Interest and devotion

At a recent talk with university students in Shanghai, Smithies, who is 87, said real interest and devotion to science are key to making important contributions. He emphasized the importance of personal interest and suggested science students find subjects that really interest them. "If your tutor doesn't like the project you like, change the tutor," he said.

Scientific research often involves creativity and inventions. Smithies said that when he couldn't find the kind of specific equipment he needed, he made his own - this was the case in the research that won the Nobel. He held up a pink container that he said was an infant's bathtub, which he had modified with wires and equipment from other lab apparatus. "Never make winning the Nobel Prize your goal," he said. "No Nobel Prize winners target the prize during their research. The only thing that all winners have in common are having fun and having confidence in their research."

Xiong Bingqi, vice head of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a non-profit organization featuring researches on education and public policy, said a reason for the lack of recognition in science today is the nature of China's education system.

"We teach students knowledge," he said. "But studies suggest knowledge-centered education can only have a very minor impact in a person's future life ... The education system doesn't value and nurture students imagination, creativity, observation and communications skills that can influence a whole life," Xiong said.

China's education system is famously test oriented. The system and appraisal by tests kill students' personality, imagination and creativity and produce a lot of "exam-taking machines," he said.

Another major obstacle to genuine scientific innovation and achievement is bureaucracy, Xiong said. Many researchers lose research funding in an academic structure too often controlled by administrative bodies.

Scientists who want to get funding often have to spend a lot of time socializing and interacting, attending conferences, writing papers as well as writing applications for projects, leaving them with little time for creative thinking, he said.

Research also tends to be utilitarian and pure research without relatively short-term returns and rewards isn't generally favored by institutions, funders or individual researchers.

Publish or perish

University evaluation systems are also flawed because they appraise researchers by the number of papers they publish and the number of projects they complete, instead of genuine scientific achievement, Xiong said.

Plagiarism flourishes in quite a few universities because researchers are under great pressure to secure promotions.

China wants its scientists to win Nobels and pours money into key research programs in pursuit of the prize, but first of all it should create a fair and free environment for researchers to work without bureaucratic interruption or utilitarian considerations.


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