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Chinese universities ‘stifle creativity’ in STEM, study suggests

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Researchers based at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)’s Centre for Nanotechnology in Society have published the first comprehensive study into the challenges facing STEM researchers in Chinese universities, which has found that cultural barriers are standing in the way of true innovation.

The Chinese government’s industrial strategy puts an emphasis on moving from a manufacturing-based economy to one based on new knowledge and technologies. President Xi Jinping has spoken of his intentions to transform China into a “science and technology superpower” with world-leading strength in areas such as artificial intelligence.

Previously, studies into China’s STEM research sector relied on small focus groups and anecdotes; these UCSB researchers collected data from 731 surveys carried out by STEM researchers at China’s leading 25 universities. The study looked into the issues facing leading scientists in the country, but also gave consideration to how various government policies might affect Chinese innovation.

“Our research shows that the Chinese educational system stifles creativity and the critical thinking necessary to achieve innovative breakthroughs, too often hamstrings researchers with bureaucratic requirements, and rewards quantity over quality,” said Professor Richard Appelbaum, the UCSB sociologist who led the study.

“China’s emphasis on rote learning and memorisation reinforces this, as does a strong cultural emphasis on respect for authority.”

The researchers looked into two major issues in Chinese universities: an apparent bias towards researchers holding degrees earned abroad and ‘exclusionary research cliques’.

Previous studied have suggested that Chinese researchers holding foreign degrees tend to be offered higher salaries, find it easier to get promotions, and receive larger lab spaces compared with those holding domestic degrees. Many researchers, it was found, hold the assumption that studying abroad gives a researcher more recognition from colleagues; this could in turn open up opportunities that may otherwise not be available.

“Our main takeaway is that if China wants to make this transition [to competing with Western research] successfully, it still has a very long way to go,” said Dr Xueying Han, who co-authored the study.

“That’s because the challenges that are facing China’s research environment are not things that can be easily fixed by money. They’re cultural challenges, and that’s going to require a major shift in thinking.”

Appelbaum and Han hope that further research may be conducted into the atmosphere of China’s STEM research environment, particularly by Chinese researchers themselves. Eventually, they suggest, this body of research could help the Chinese government shift its higher education metrics to value creative work more highly.

“The Chinese government would do well to take seriously our conclusions,” said Appelbaum. “They should monitor progress in reforming the educational system to encourage more creative and innovative thought, rather than simply counting publications and patents.”

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