Source - Economist, November 17, 2018: "Seizing the laurels"
China sent its best students abroad beginning in the 1970's and now those PhD's are coming home to China where generous incentives reward them for publishing. China is poised to become a world leader in academia in the next decade.
All from the article: Tsinghua University 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. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) still leads in the top 1% of stem papers, but 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.
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. 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. Now such bonuses range up to $165,000—20 times the annual salary of an average academic—for a paper in Nature. The system has responded. China’s share of STEM papers 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.
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.
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.