Build depth, not speed

Ts­inghua provost: China’s fo­cus must be qual­ity

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Paul.basken@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

China now boasts the top-ranked uni­ver­sity in Asia, and its lead­ers and its re­searchers are be­ing steeled for the next big chal­lenge: slow down, and man­age ex­pec­ta­tions for the next long phase of aca­demic growth.

China’s suc­cess is re­flected in the lat­est Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion World Uni­ver­sity Rank­ings, in which Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity over­took the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore to take the ti­tle of best uni­ver­sity in Asia.

Ts­inghua’s provost, Yang Bin (pic­tured in­set), said that the uni­ver­sity’s climb re­flected im­prove­ments in both teach­ing and re­search, as well as the pro­mo­tion of stu­dent in­no­va­tion and en­trepreneur­ship. And Pro­fes­sor Yang said that he saw no po­lit­i­cal bar­ri­ers to open in­quiry and in­no­va­tion.

But Pro­fes­sor Yang, in an in­ter­view at THE’s World Aca­demic Sum­mit in Sin­ga­pore, said that he does fear coun­ter­pro­duc­tive pres­sures on his in­sti­tu­tion and fac­ulty to move even faster.

Pro­fes­sor Yang said that he was not re­fer­ring so much to out­right fraud, although that clearly has been a prob­lem dur­ing China’s drive to over­take the US in to­tal sci­en­tific jour­nals pub­lished.

In­stead, he sees a more per­va­sive is­sue – also com­mon in other coun­tries – of aca­demics look­ing to get pub­lished and win grants by seek­ing smaller projects with rel­a­tively pre­dictable out­comes, and thereby avoid­ing the risks nec­es­sary for big­ger sci­en­tific break­throughs.

Too many Chi­nese re­searchers pre­fer to “do some­thing easy or do some­thing sim­ple, or do some­thing not that solid”, Pro­fes­sor Yang said. “I want them to do some­thing big­ger with more long-term think­ing – not just some­thing you can achieve to­mor­row morn­ing.”

Top in­sti­tu­tions such as Ts­inghua and Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity are mak­ing fund­ing and pro­mo­tion de­ci­sions based on qual­ity of re­search rather than quan­tity, Pro­fes­sor Yang said. Other Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties will fol­low their lead even­tu­ally, he said, adding: “It takes time.”

Among ex­am­ples of short-term sci­en­tific think­ing that he has seen, Pro­fes­sor Yang de­scribed re­searchers treat­ing the de­vel­op­ment of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence as al­most ex­clu­sively a prob­lem of com­puter sci­ence. In­stead, he said, they should be tak­ing the time to work with col­leagues in math­e­mat­ics and physics to get the more com­pre­hen­sive level of un­der­stand­ing nec­es­sary for more fun­da­men­tal AI dis­cov­er­ies, with eth­i­cal ex­perts in­cluded along the way.

Such con­cerns, Pro­fes­sor Yang said, re­flect the re­al­i­sa­tion that, while mov­ing from a top 100 uni­ver­sity to a top 50 uni­ver­sity was dif­fi­cult, mov­ing into the top 30 range has proved a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent chal­lenge.

“You’ll need a dif­fer­ent strat­egy,” Pro­fes­sor Yang said. “Not quan­tity, but more qual­ity, and cul­ture and spirit.”

Ts­inghua was ranked 22nd glo- bally in the 2019 THE rank­ings, part of a steady ad­vance from 50th in 2014 and 30th in 2018.

And while China just over­took the US in the to­tal num­ber of pub­lished sci­en­tific ar­ti­cles, Pro­fes­sor Yang an­tic­i­pated that decades would pass be­fore Chi­nese uni­ver­sity re­search is truly com­pa­ra­ble. “I don’t think 10 years or 20 years would be the an­swer,” he said. “I believe it takes 30 years or longer.”

Chi­nese fac­ulty are not alone in be­ing im­pa­tient for more global recog­ni­tion of the gains that they see tak­ing place in their na­tion’s sys­tem of higher ed­u­ca­tion, Pro­fes­sor Yang said. “It’s a whole en­vi­ron­ment prob­lem, not just the uni­ver­si­ties or the fac­ulty,” he said, cit­ing pres­sures from the gov­ern­ment, in­dus­try and me­dia.

In a ses­sion at the World Aca­demic Sum­mit, Tony Chan – un­til re­cently the pres­i­dent of Hong Kong Uni­ver­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy – said that he also felt im­pa­tience among Chi­nese gov­ern­ment lead­ers for vis­i­ble re­turns on the grow­ing na­tional in­vest­ment in uni­ver­si­ties. “They say: ‘We should be get­ting some No­bel prizes’,” said Pro­fes­sor Chan, who last month be­came pres­i­dent of King Ab­dul­lah Uni­ver­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in Saudi Ara­bia.

Even if Chi­nese re­searchers are do­ing work now that is wor­thy of a No­bel prize, Pro­fes­sor Chan said, they will prob­a­bly still have to wait 20 or 30 years to re­ceive it.

China’s grow­ing num­ber of pri­vate donors, while valu­able, also fu­els the pres­sure for sci­en­tific ac­com­plish­ment, Pro­fes­sor Yang said. “When they give the uni­ver­sity some money, they want it to hap­pen to­mor­row,” he said.

The Chi­nese peo­ple, how­ever, are nat­u­rally en­trepreneurial, and liv­ing un­der a po­lit­i­cally re­stric­tive gov­ern­ment should not pre­vent them from reach­ing world-class lev­els of aca­demic and in­no­va­tive suc­cess, Pro­fes­sor Yang said.

“The cir­cum­stances for en­trepreneur­ship in China are bet­ter than in many de­vel­oped coun­tries,” he said. “In the Chi­nese cul­ture, in the Chi­nese blood, there is some­thing very en­trepreneurial.”

That in­cludes the free­dom to chal­lenge author­ity, Pro­fes­sor Yang said. “That hap­pens ev­ery day in China,” he said. Many young Chi­nese have more trou­ble stand­ing up to their par­ents than to their gov­ern­ment, he said. “You shouldn’t think about crit­i­cal think­ing as purely re­lated to po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy,” he said.

Mea­sured steps re­search qual­ity, not quan­tity, will drive fur­ther aca­demic growth in China, say uni­ver­sity lead­ers

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