The announcement that Tu Youyou had shared in the this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been long awaited in China. It has repercussions for Western education and science publishers as well.
While Tu’s award constitutes the long-awaited first science Nobel Prize going to a Chinese researcher born, educated and conducting her research in China, a handful of Chinese have won prior science Nobel Awards. Three Han Chinese born in China won science Nobels but trained and worked in other countries. Two Chinese scientists were in China at the time of their award, but had conducted their research elsewhere. Three Americans of Chinese descent won science Nobels. And three non-Han Chinese born in China were trained in America where they also conducted their research.
Therefore an award to a Chinese researcher who was born, educated and did her work in China affirms to China that “we can do it!”
But the Chinese social media reaction has been mixed. One common puzzlement centers around “Why didn’t it go to a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences?” Unlike our National Academy of Science that is a group of dispersed researchers, the CAS is a large institution in Beijing (with additional branch campuses) that operates as a university, turning out more science graduates than any other university. It is a highly-funded high-pressure institute—its researchers will get Nobel Prizes soon.
But the extensive media chatter in China reflects a characteristic ranking mentality: the first prize should have gone to CAS or Tsinghua or Beijing University! So the Nobel committee must have intended to insult them. Chinese universities really are classified into first, second and third tier. So a researcher at a first tier school should have won. Rank and position in Chinese society are very important. There is almost a nationwide feeling that these schools have “lost face.”
But by splitting the award with two other researchers who also made major breakthroughs in treating worldwide diseases, this award was clearly objective. Even the science leadership in China makes a nod to this older applied research with references to passing the baton to the new era of research that most certainly will come from the recognized top-ranked schools.
Decades ago, China thought that the U.S. predominance in Nobel prizes in science was due to our educational curriculum. However, they discovered that the amount of science offered in American K-12 grades is pitiful, about one-third the amount of science studied in other developed countries.
China has long been sending over 100,000 thousand college students to America each year. Many study masters and doctoral level research. The increasing number of these graduates returning to Chinese universities have also brought with them the American system of open questioning. How would we set up an experiment to solve this problem? Here are some results; what do they mean? That is in stark contrast to the student memorization and teacher teaching-to-the-test that predominated in China. It is therefore ironic that China is attempting to move away from memorization for high-stakes tests while the United States has for the last 15 years rapidly moved toward a test-prep system.
Meanwhile, some Western publishers may have to curtail their corrupt practices toward Chinese researchers. For over a decade, China’s scientists have been rewarded for publishing in English journals. Asian author names are surpassing Western names in most key journals.
However, some Western journals are now attempting to coerce unnecessary fees for English services. Tu’s work on the anti-malaria drug artemisinin originated with Chinese medicine; but some journals will not accept research that has that origin despite following modern Western research criteria. And some Chinese researchers find their manuscripts immediately rejected without reading in the last half of each year, raising suspicions that some Western journals have set a quota on articles from China.
Tu’s award may help curb these corrupt Western publication practices.
In 2001, after their high school students scored high on international testing, one Asian Minister of Education said: “we train students to take tests but we do not get Nobel Prizes.” Fourteen years later, China and some other parts of Asia are making changes in education and research that ensure that Tu’s Nobel Prize will not be their last.