Tsinghua University may soon top the world league in science research

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TSINGHUA UNIVERSITY was born out of national humiliation. It was founded in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion—an anti-foreign uprising in 1900—and paid for with the reparations exacted from China by America. Now Tsinghua is a major source of Chinese pride as it contends for accolades for research in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). In 2013-16 it produced more of the top 1% most highly cited papers in maths and computing, and more of the 10% most highly cited papers in STEM, than any other university in the world, reckons Simon Marginson of Oxford University (see chart). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) still leads in the top 1% of STEM papers, but Mr Marginson says Tsinghua is on track to be “number one in five years or less”.

Tsinghua and Peking University are modelled on Western research universities. The two are also neighbours and rivals, China’s Oxford and Cambridge. Tsinghua is the conventional, practical one—the alma mater of many of the country’s leaders, including the current one, Xi Jinping, and Hu Jintao, his predecessor. Peking University is the home of poets, philosophers and rebels; Mao Zedong worked in the library, and the university was at the forefront of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Like other Chinese universities, the two foremost ones all but ceased to function during Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s; rival Red Guard factions waged bloody struggles for control of Tsinghua. But both quickly rebounded. Tsinghua retained its scientific bent and became the principal beneficiary of the country’s boom in STEM research.

Seizing the laurels

Since 1995 the central government has mounted a series of efforts, involving billions of dollars in spending, to turn China’s best universities into world-class ones. First came Project 211, which aimed to improve around 100 institutions to make them fit for the 21st century. The latest incarnation of this scheme is the Double First Class Plan, which was launched in 2015. Its goal is to foster world standards in two groups, one consisting of leading universities and the other of select departments in a wider range of institutions.

Money is the lever. The funding system motivates universities to produce top-class research. Universities, in turn, give their academics an incentive to do so. A study by three Chinese researchers, published last year, noted that payments for getting a paper published had risen steadily from the $25 that was offered nearly 30 years ago by Nanjing University, the first university to give such rewards. Now such bonuses range up to $165,000—20 times the annual salary of an average academic—for a paper in Nature, depending on the institution. The system has responded. China’s share of STEMpapers in Scopus, the world’s biggest catalogue of abstracts and citations, rose from 4% in 2000 to 19% in 2016, more than America’s contribution.

Tsinghua creams off the best researchers. And, like China itself, when it comes to scoring, it benefits from its size. PhD students are the workforce of the research business. In 2017 the university awarded 1,385 doctorates (some recipients are pictured), compared with 645 conferred by MIT. But numbers are not the main reason for Tsinghua’s success. Yang Bin, its vice-president, says “the most important moment in the development of Tsinghua” was in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping said China would send larger numbers of students abroad. “We need to send tens of thousands,” Deng said. “This is one of the key ways of…improving our level of scientific education.” Officials worried that few of them would return, but Deng insisted that enough would. He was right.

Forty years on, Tsinghua and the country’s other top universities are reaping the rewards. The return flow of highly trained people is gathering pace. The government has provided extra resources to attract them. Tsinghua cannot match the best American packages, but it can offer six-figure dollar salaries—and the opportunity for young parents to bring up their children in their own culture. Qian Yingyi (Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and subsequently dean of Tsinghua’s school of economics and management) and Shi Yigong (dean of Tsinghua’s school of life sciences; previously at Johns Hopkins and Princeton) are among the star returnees who have transformed the university. “Those intellectuals played a very important role, changing the whole climate, raising standards,” says Mr Yang.

Reforms in staff management have helped, too. In 2012, in the school of which he was dean, Mr Qian replaced a personnel system dominated by personal contacts and political clout with an American-style tenure track: six years of research, then a review of performance, mainly based on published work, after which academics were hired permanently or shown the door. This approach then spread through the university. The result, says Mr Yang, is that “people work terribly hard here: the lights are on all night, people work all weekend”, hoping to get papers into leading journals. The speed with which their efforts have dragged Tsinghua up the rankings is astonishing. In 2006-09 the university was 66th in the maths-and-computing-research league table. Now it is top.

But there are worries about Tsinghua’s direction—particularly among engineers, who used to dominate the university. Their applied skills have played a crucial role in China’s modernisation, but because they produce relatively little cutting-edge theoretical research, they have been losing out under the new regime. Engineers complain that they struggle to get funding or promotion, and that the focus on research neglects their contribution to society.

Others worry that the university is still not cutting-edge enough. “Many Japanese people have won Nobel prizes,” says Mr Yang. “People are saying: ‘Why not the Chinese?’” Mainland China has only one Nobel prize in science, awarded to Tu Youyou for discovering an anti-malarial drug in the 1970s. Japan has 23; America has 282. Mr Yang reckons that the pressure to publish is problematic. “It’s good for short-term results, but not for really big things, for unorthodox thinking. Too many people have the attitude of followers. They’re not entrepreneurial enough. I say: Start some new field. Don’t care too much about recognition from peers. Risk your whole career.” Persuading researchers to think radically instead of incrementally would mean changing the way the system incentivises them.

And while China’s universities forge ahead in the hard-science league table, they seem less likely to triumph in the social sciences. One problem is language. All the world’s leading journals are published in English. That matters less for hard scientists, who communicate mostly in symbols, than for social scientists, who use many more words. An academic in Tsinghua’s education department says Chinese social scientists complain that their best ideas are difficult to translate. “Writing papers for English-language journals is like competing in an exam that is set by the West,” she quotes them as lamenting.

The constraints on free speech, increasingly felt in universities, are another reason why China’s STEM triumph may not spread to other disciplines. In 2013 the government told universities that seven topics, including universal values, judicial independence and the past mistakes of the Communist Party, were off-limits. “At a great university,” says William Kirby, professor of China studies at Harvard, “there isn’t one thing that can’t be talked about, let alone seven.”

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