A culture of favouring science over technology comes at the expense of both technologists and research outputs, writes engineer Huafeng Wang.
Two scientists won China's Top Science and Technology award in February. Eighty-nine year-old Wu Liangyong and 92 year-old Xie Jialin received a prize of five million Yuan (US$800,000) each for achievements in architecture and physics, respectively.
But for the eighth time since 2000, there was no top prize awarded for the national Natural Science Award — raising the question of why the country seems to lack lasting and important scientific achievements in the natural sciences. One possibility is that researchers pay more attention to publishing articles than to the impact of their work on technology.
The relationship between scientific research and technology in China is seriously flawed — as not only do basic researchers often ignore technological development, but also, technologists can ignore the important role of scientific research.
We need to reward the contribution of both scientists and technical personnel, such as engineers, to scientific research programmes.
Scientists rule the roost
The Confucian philosopher Mencius said: "Those who labour with their minds govern others; those who labour with strength are governed by others." This is a fitting description of the research environment in China, where scientists control the work of technicians. Science tends to command more attention than technology, and researchers enjoy a high status.
But we must acknowledge that technical staff provide support for researchers, such as by conducting routine experiments. Scientific ideas cannot be realised without an engineer's assistance, while the work by engineering and technical personnel is best guided by the needs of scientific researchers.
The substantial contributions of technicians to scientific achievements can be neglected. And over time, this approach in China's scientific culture has caused a serious imbalance in the development of science and technology.
Technical input is missing
In 2010, nearly 130,000 Chinese papers were included in the Science Citation Index — the second highest number in the world. But China was ranked only eighth in the world in the number of citations for these papers. It is a discrepancy that should lead us to consider how much of original Chinese research is respected and used by others.
Most research projects require a major portion of their funding to be used to buy laboratory instruments and reagents. But the nature of the Chinese research culture has stifled the development of research equipment, which is lagging far behind that of developed countries. Our scientific ideas are mostly achieved with the help of foreign research platforms.
Some equipment could be easily constructed by our research teams. But under the current scientific research evaluation system, writing a paper is seen as more valuable. This means that much of China's public research budget is spent on instruments or reagents from abroad.
Finally, the culture of paying more attention to science than technology undermines the professional motivation of technicians, and often leads to a shortfall in their number.
As it is easier for a professor to publish a science paper than for an engineer to invent instrumentation, careers tend to advance through the publication route. The appointment system favours research scientists over engineers, and because benefits are linked to titles, many senior engineers lose passion for their work.
Equality needed for engineers
In fact, science and technology complement and enhance one another — technology drives progress in science, and science promotes the birth of new technology. Take the 1986 Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the electron microscope: it promoted progress in science by allowing us to examine specimens at a fine scale.
Most countries do recognise the value of technology in their research culture. For example, achievement awards by the Thompson Rivers University in Canada recognise not only scientific research and teaching staff, but also technical and management staff.
As things stand in China, it is difficult to imagine a researcher and a laboratory technician receiving the same benefits or professional status. This is the product of a social system dominated by a feudal mentality. It is understandable, but unfair, that administrative power has this influence over our professions.
Ultimately, it is a loss for China's capacity for lasting and important scientific achievements, which depends on research and technical personnel cooperating with each other. New ideas need to be tested with new methods and instruments developed by technicians.
The most important and easiest reform that we can make to our research system is to remove bias by abolishing benefits linked to titles, and treat each professional according to their ability and contribution.
Huafeng Wang is an engineer at the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences (RCEES), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.