Top-down research environment stifles success – Study

China’s higher education and research system hamstrings researchers with bureaucratic requirements, rewards quantity over quality and stifles the creativity and critical thinking necessary to achieve innovative breakthroughs, a comprehensive study of the country’s research environment has found.

“Despite China’s improvements in overall research output, there remain numerous challenges within its research environment that could prevent China from becoming the global leader in science and technology that it wants to become,” says the research paper “China’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Research Environment: A snapshot”, published this month by PLOS One.

China “still has a long way to go” to become a science and technology superpower, says Xueying Han, a co-author of the paper written with Richard Appelbaum, former distinguished research professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the United States.

“Just because you put the money in there, does not mean you are going to get the results you want,” Han continues, a reference to a huge rise in China’s research and development spending – officially put at US$279 billion last year, a rise of 11% on the previous year.

In research, “most of the challenges are cultural challenges of a top-down driven society, which is much harder to change than technical or logistical or other challenges that can be fixed by money,” says Han, who is currently on the research staff at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington DC.

With most information previously anecdotal or based on small surveys, the paper draws from a survey of more than 730 researchers in China – one of the most wide-ranging conducted in recent years. It also includes in-depth feedback from more than 400 researchers and professors at China’s top 25 universities – many of them wanting to anonymously provide information because they cannot speak out back home, Han notes.

Describing it as “the highest sample size, to our knowledge, in a study regarding China’s higher education research environment”, the paper identifies the main challenges faced by science researchers at the country’s elite universities.

The top five challenges are: a promotion of short-term thinking and instant success, flagged by 37% of all respondents; the level of research funding, named by a third of respondents; too much bureaucratic or government intervention, highlighted by 31%; the research and higher education evaluation systems, identified by 27%; and the reliance in China on human relations or connections to get ahead, named by a quarter of respondents.

Research ‘monopolies’ and contacts

Research funding is criticised as unfair, not transparent and received by too few people. Also, resources are wasted or unreasonably spent.

Respondents note that guanxi, or connections, still plays a role in determining research funding, which is often restricted to a select few belonging to certain ‘research circles’ who monopolise research funding.

A respondent from Huazhong University of Science and Technology says: “Research monopolies get all the research funding. General researchers find it very difficult to obtain funding. Research funding is primarily based on human connections and guanxi, and not on an individual’s research abilities.”

“This is the first time we heard of the research monopoly or research circle terminology,” Han says, explaining: “You join a circle of other researchers in a similar field with an understanding that if one of you serves on a peer review or a funding [body] and you see someone from your research circle apply for that funding you try to push it towards them.”

This may not be the same for everyone. “Our study presents what it’s like for the average researcher at a top university. China, like every other country, has superstars in their field,” says Han.

“Many research monopolies are run by research superstars who have no problem with research funding, and have much more leeway on the topics that they want to look into.”

“Chinese superstars are definitely competing at the same level as United States and European Union superstars. And they are putting out fantastic research,” Han points out.

Short-term thinking

Many respondents indicate that faculty members are spending their time trying to meet university and department requirements for research and teaching rather than actually doing research and teaching.

“Because researchers feel so compelled to meet these metrics they are unable to engage in long-term research they feel would be necessary to make more scientific breakthroughs,” Han tells University World News.

“They see the low-hanging fruit that will get them the publication, but they don’t have the time and energy to actually do the higher hanging fruit which would have more impact in the long run. And that’s what they think is driving the system right now, both in terms of the metrics required by universities, and the funding doled out by the various funding agencies.”

A respondent from Shanghai Jiao Tong University writes: “The pursuit of the number of publications is a short-sighted behaviour; nobody is willing to do long-term research.” Another from Sichuan University states: “There is not enough freedom to pursue original, innovative research.”

Of the 731 survey respondents, three quarters indicate that their department or university offers incentives for publishing in foreign journals. These are always cash rewards, but the amount varies widely by department and university. Some 42% of respondents indicate that the amount was based on the journal’s international ranking.

Because the respondents are from first-tier institutions, this may not be representative of faculty members at second- and third-tier institutions. Therefore, “the findings from our study likely represent the best-case scenarios of China’s higher education system and research environment,” Han argues.

Government intervention

Excessive government intervention is the second biggest challenge, with respondents pointing to strong pressure to follow official ideologies and standards.

The central government identifies a national research priority list with specific funding allocated to each priority area. There are also regional and local research priority lists. “To get funding, researchers must align themselves with these research priorities or restructure their research to fall in line with these priorities,” the paper notes.

Respondents want more freedom to determine their own research trajectory or research project. Specifically, they want to see more non-designated research funding to allow researchers to pitch their own research ideas.

One example of government intervention, Han notes, is the number of graduate students a professor is allowed to take on. “It’s a top-down approach dictated all the way from the Ministry of Education. The ministry tells the universities how many graduate students they are allowed to have that particular year, the university tells each department how many graduate students they are allowed to take, then the department tells the professors.”

On average each professor is allowed one graduate student a year. “A lot of professors said they had a lot of funding and could support more than one graduate student a year. But they are simply not allowed.”

Respondents also said administrators and bureaucrats wield too much power; that power is in the hands of a few; and that often, those in power have little to no expertise in the areas they oversee.


The focus on research quantity over quality has resulted in the much-maligned evaluation system which is “a clear source of distress among researchers”, Han says.

Responses indicate that the evaluation system is unfair, too focused on quantitative measurements of research and places an administrative burden on researchers.

Many respondents reckon it does not adequately assess an individual’s research potential or quality. “Researchers are strongly recommended to achieve research and teaching ‘milestones’ by evaluation time to avoid financial or other punitive sanctions,” the paper notes.

A respondent from Sun Yat-sen University maintains that few are interested in doing research and only do it “because they are forced to. Real research that addresses any [real] research problems or is of actual quality is very low.”

A respondent from Fudan University notes that people fabricate or plagiarise papers in order to pass their annual performance evaluations.

The sentiment that publication requirements induce plagiarism, fabrication of results and academic misconduct in general, leading to record numbers of retractions from overseas journals, is echoed by many respondents.

Current research atmosphere

Most survey responses were received in 2016, before President Xi Jinping’s term limit – previously limited to two terms – was extended by the National People’s Congress in March.

“Indications that government policy is turning inward and away from openness that is central to innovative thinking, may actually be getting worse,” Han says.

“University faculty members are quite worried,” she adds. “They were hoping the Chinese government would move towards more openness and give more control back to universities.” Instead, “it’s been moving in the opposite direction from what they would like to see”.