Science Across the Silk Road

barbatti-great-wallI was recently in China for a couple of weeks visiting different scientific institutions. I definitely learned a lot about a part of the world blending the oldest traditions and the greatest potential to impact humanity’s future.

It was a great time. I attended a short workshop in Beijing, then visited people in Tianjin and Qingdao.

I was overall astonished by the high level of the research done there. It was certainly superior to what I have seen in other developing countries I have visited before.

China has a massive production system: a single department may host two dozen grad students in the sub-field of theoretical photochemistry alone. Nonetheless, it is a system far from being closed in itself.

It was curious how many, maybe most, of the researchers I met there had come from some of the best research groups in USA and Europe, where they got a PhD or went for a postdoc stay. Not to mention the relatively large number of senior foreign researchers established in there. In one of the institutions I visited, for instance, the dean was a well-known American scholar.

For sure, these are examples of a very clever internationalization policy, where talents are not only not lost to developed economies, but even attracted from them.

I talked to many people there, from senior professors to young students; people at universities and at research institutes; natives and foreigners. A common concern I heard everywhere was the overwhelming productivity pressure from funding agencies. And it wasn’t exactly about number of publications, but mostly about being leading author in high-impact-factor papers.

A grad student may be required to sign as the first author in papers summing up to an impact factor of at least six. Something like publishing either one JACS, or two PCCP, or three J Chem Phys before graduating. I know, it doesn’t even make sense to use a variable set to measure a journal’s impact to evaluate people’s performance, but they do so; and this pressure is certainly triggering some paranoia there. I felt it in the air.

When I mentioned to a colleague I had just submitted my latest work to J Phys Chem A — a traditional well-reputed journal in our field, but with the “handicap” of holding an impact factor of 2.9 — rather than asking me about my findings, he immediately questioned why I had not sent it to PCCP, whose impact factor was 4.4. I learned that the chances of acceding in the career (or simply hold to their jobs) are quite slim if a researcher doesn’t keep a steady streaming of Angew. Chem. and JACS publications.

I don’t spouse a romantic view of science, according to which scientists left on their own would do the best research for love of Truth. No, they won’t. You may be surprised, but scientists left alone tend to waste their afternoons watching videos about cats on Facebook. Although, I have nothing against cats, I believe that certain productivity pressure is healthy.

Nevertheless, I can’t stop feeling that in China the system may have taken a wrong turn. I saw those armies of grad students needed to keep papers’ pipelines oiled, working without any realistic perspective of doing anything useful with their PhD title afterwards. (Well, apart from scale, it’s not really much different from Europe’s situation, isn’t it?) I saw those labs full of people sitting there for fifteen hours a day. I saw those researchers discussing more about impact factors than about science. All of that seemed somewhat so irrational and counterproductive.

It’s a system tuned to work under stress. And under stress, people overlook important results in need of maturation; they may neglect important areas not immediately represented by high-impact factor journals. Under stress, people tend to bypass ethical principles and maybe play softer with methodological guard rails.

Anyway, I have no doubt that some of the best contemporary science is made in China. For their scale, I am also sure that whatever they do, it will reflect on scientific practices everywhere in the world. Exactly for this global importance, I really hope that the Chinese scientific system will reach an yin-yang balance.


  • If you want to know more about Chinese history, I recommend Marco Polo on Netflix. There is some serious Kung Fu going on there.

Categories: Science Policy

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