Why is China falling behind on disruptive innovation?


The past year has witnessed not only a global health crisis, but also a dramatic blow to the Chinese academic profession. There has been a shift in academic assessment exercises at Chinese universities.

Over the past decade, considerable emphasis has been placed on journal publications from the Science Citation Index (SCI), a trade citation index that records citations of articles published in its science, medicine indexed journals. and technology.

These journals are therefore considered to be leading journals, and publication in these journals would not only result in merit pay, but also preference in evaluation exercises, leading to opportunities for professional promotion and talent program, in turn bringing an increase in personal income and research resources.

For example, an article published in one of the top SCI indexed journals could earn a bonus of up to $ 85,000. As a result, the annual number of articles published by China in SCI indexed journals increased from 120,000 in 2009 to 450,000 in 2019.

Paradoxically, China’s strong production of research publications has not translated into innovation. This was revealed by the trade war between the United States and China, which revealed that China suffered from a severe lack of control over key technologies and intellectual property. China’s top universities are now perceived to be below standards in major technology development and transfer.

Lack of innovation

A leading scientist in China, Shi Yigong, revealed an amazing reason behind the scenes: Chinese universities don’t produce many original or groundbreaking innovations. He further warned that the current campaign to boost publications would not necessarily lead to a boost in science and engineering. On the contrary, it could usher in an appearance of prosperity, based simply on the size and quantity of research publications.

As a result, the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology released a policy document in February 2020 that officially discouraged the previously sanctioned practice of using SCI as the primary criteria for evaluating research. .

According to the new policy, indicators related to SCI (for example, number of articles published in indexed journals on SCI, journal impact factors and number of citations of publications) were not to be accepted as Direct evidence of research merit and the practice of paying premiums to researchers for publication in SCI journals will be prohibited.

In December 2020, the Ministry of Education and five other central agencies (including the Central Organizing Department and the Central Advertising Department of the Communist Party of China) issued new guidelines for the professional advancement of teaching staff in higher education, which prescribe a rectification of the practices of “evaluating articles by publishing journals and giving primacy to SCI indexed journals”.

Recently, on May 21, 2021, the top leadership of the Communist Party of China issued a directive to rectify the evaluation mechanism regarding scientific and technological performance.

The paper points to the problems of simplifying indicators, quantifying criteria and blindly tracking trends, and the utilitarianism of current assessment practices. It calls for a multivariate valuation system with market-based valuation and mid- to long-term valuation as well as post-effect review.

This directive demonstrates the urgency of changing the research evaluation process in China.

‘Involution’ held responsible

A situation of “involution” has been cited as a factor responsible for this paradox. This concept was originally used by anthropologists to describe how population growth in some agrarian societies is associated with a decrease in wealth per capita. It is now becoming popular in China, where most people work harder but make little progress in terms of social mobility.

When translated into the academic profession, ‘involution’ refers to a paradoxical situation in which most academic researchers work harder and publish more papers, while the innovative force of higher education Chinese is not growing significantly.

This paradox is clearly demonstrated by the fact that, on the one hand, an increasing number of Chinese universities are now making their way into the world rankings due to their research publications and citations; yet, on the other hand, the United States could easily take advantage of China’s technological bottlenecks and hold China by its throat in the bilateral trade war.

Specifically, international research publication databases indicate that China outnumber the United States in terms of publications in areas such as materials science, computer science, engineering, chemistry, mathematics and physics. Yet among the 35 key technology restrictions recently cited in the Science and technology in everyday life, most relate to these particular areas.

How does involution lead to such an effect? It is believed that the scarcity of resources makes a society “involuntary”. Faced with the scarcity of necessary resources in a given society, specific types of institutions can develop in order to hunt and share these scarce resources as much as possible; the more complex the evolution of these institutions, the more a society will become involved.

Within the framework of Chinese higher education, the state has invested over the past two decades in a few excellence programs with the aim of creating world-class universities (i.e. projects 211, 985 and “Double First-Class”) or to reward high caliber talent (such as the Plan Mille Talents and the Cheung Kong Scholar Award).

These programs attract and concentrate an enormous amount of resources. Many provincial governments emulate such practices and initiate programs of excellence at the local level. These programs not only concentrate resources, but also incorporate selection criteria (and weightings) into publications in high impact journals (those indexed in the SCI representing a tiny fraction of all scientific and technical journals), literally creating a situation of shortage.

From scarcity to digging

This state of scarcity brought about by the regime of “SCI-tism” pushes Chinese universities and researchers to focus their attention and efforts on solving the immediate scarcity, that is, on seizing access. to these excellence programs.

This situation often leads to increase productivity with fast work. Some even deploy tactical maneuvers to publish for publication in SCI journals. Worse yet, the scarcity of resources hinders our cognitive function and performance.

Scarcity is likely to push us into a situation of tunneling, which involves dealing entirely with the resource or opportunity in scarcity – often at the expense of expanding our bandwidth, which is our cognitive space to think about. and imagine. A lack of bandwidth inhibits fluid intelligence, which in turn hinders the ability to envision big questions and achieve long-term goals, and results in middle rather than innovative work.

As such, the concept of scarcity might well explain how involution occurs within the Chinese academic profession and, more importantly, can predict what might happen later.

Circumstances on the road

The aforementioned policy measures demonstrate the Chinese government’s effort to break the circle of involution in which the country’s knowledge production appears to be trapped, and its commitment to restore the production of innovative and high-impact research. However, results may depend or be limited by certain internal and external conditions.

Internally, China is a country characterized by massive size – and therefore a constant scarcity of resources. For example, even among the top 100 universities in the country, the income gap can reach up to 30 times. The scarcity regime was a natural political choice and proved to be effective in pursuing China’s social and economic development goals. Arguably, scarcity provides a concentration dividend, a situation in which a person experiences an increase in productivity by focusing heavily on a single activity.

Such a targeted dividend effect satisfies China’s need to outperform others in global competitions. If an alternative regime cannot be put in place and function as efficiently, the inertia generated by the dependence on the path could cause the pendulum to fall back.

Indeed, while the Chinese government has banned the use of indicators linked to ICS, it has not yet sanctioned any alternative evaluation mechanism. Externally, the dominance of university capitalism bears the characteristics of the scarcity regime, which advocates focusing investments on the best institutions and researchers – through constant and rigorous selections – in order to maximize research returns.

Researchers are thus encouraged to publish as much and as quickly as possible in journals with high impact factors, which in turn generate good citation performance; their universities benefit enormously from such citations in the exercise of academic rankings. If the ranking results of Chinese universities are hampered in this new political environment, the government (as well as universities) may want to revert to the old rules.

Qiang Zha is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, Toronto, Canada. Email: [email protected] This article first appeared in the current edition of International higher education.

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