Innovation and science in China

An article by Professor Wu Guosheng, head of the History of Science Department at Qinghua University in Beijing, highlights the real difference between China and the United States: technological innovation. He begins by detailing this difference, exposing the obstacles to innovation, and explaining why utilitarianism is harmful.

The turmoil of the trade war has distracted attention from a crucial issue for China: technological innovation. It allowed leaders to take the lead, England with the Industrial Revolution, Germany with its scientists, and the United States today. How does China compare with America in this respect?

1. The real differences between China and the United States

The real differences between the United States and China can be found in :
Basic research
Applied research
Development research for the market
The main discoveries of the 20th century are American: radio transmission, the computer, and the Internet. The National Science Foundation, founded in 1950, to support research and provide funding, has contributed to the country’s scientific development.
The importance of basic research
Why does the United States attach great importance to basic research? Because it determines the level of development of scientific research, decides whether early innovations can come into applied research and development. As a result, America’s scientific strength has grown day by day.
Basic research in China
China’s weakness lies in the lack of real knowledge in research disciplines and basic research.
Science is the search for truth, the development of individual creativity to discover the universe’s mysteries. Still, in our time, the word science is used more for other purposes to save the nation, for China’s rebirth and cultural intentions.
The utilitarian vision is still too present; the State has concentrated on large, highly “visible” works, such as high-speed trains and space navigation.
Fundamental research is lacking, technological innovation is too much based on other people’s technologies. It is necessary to go beyond the stage of improving a piece of the others. It is normal at first to imitate the best, but this stage must be temporary and to last in the long term and be healthy, we must be at the origin of technological innovations.
To progress, you have to get rid of the brakes on innovation.

Three factors hamper innovation

The spirit of freedom is the basis for innovation and creativity. The problem of freedom of spirit, in particular, comes from education, which does not give rise to it.
A. A model based on learning by heart and obedience must be reformed. Students coming out of such a system will not be able to become creative scientists. Education must allow for the development of individuality. From the earliest years, the child must obey and strictly follow the rules and when he does a doctorate, suddenly he must be creative.
B. Civil servants must not run institutions. Schools and cultural organizations have their own functioning. A school principal has a cultural position, which does not follow the same logic as a civil servant’s career.
C. Teachers still have too rigid and conservative conceptions of teaching. They need to be more open, especially at the elementary school level.
The State must allow a large number of private schools to open. Education is critical and has a long-term influence. Containing creativity is harmful and will lead to a decline in innovation and the nation’s IQ.
The scientific community
The scientific community must mobilize for scientific culture. This world is slowly becoming an administrative system.
Academics are the biggest beneficiaries of resources; they do not always manage to spend all the money allocated, while young scientists struggle to find subsidies. The system must be changed. Of course, the government is making changes, for example, by creating additional funds for science.
Society should be more supportive of the scientific world and believe in its potential.
Besides these three obstacles, Wu thinks that utilitarianism has a negative impact.

3. Utilitarianism is detrimental to scientific innovation.

Research and the discovery of innovation are, in fact, non-utilitarian. Going beyond a utilitarian attitude makes it possible to have an innovative mindset, one does not always have to think about immediate advantage and utility. When we think in terms of advantage, we rely on our experience, whereas innovation must go beyond constraints and open up new horizons. Too much utilitarianism is an obstacle. China has a strong utilitarian culture.

Professor Wu calls for more research resources, teaching that allows more freedom and is conducive to creativity, changes in the scientific world and support from society. The purely utilitarian vision must be less present to leave more room for science. These problems are not new and are almost normal.
It is easier to buy a machine, analyze it, and make it better than change a conservative thinking and teaching system that restricts initiative and does not promote originality and creativity. Wu probably sounds the alarm to get the lines moving. Will China move from being the best student in the world to being an innovator?

NB: When Wu asks for more freedom, he doesn’t talk about politics. He’s talking about the education system, which leaves the student too passive

12 July 2020

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