Eight Out Of China’s Top Nine Government Officials Are Scientists

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Eight of the nine top Chinese government officials are scientists. This same sort of ratio is found at all levels of the Chinese government.

Did you know that the president of China is a scientist? President Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer. Likewise his Premier, Wen Jiabao, is a geomechanical engineer. In fact, 8 out of China’s top 9 government officials are scientists. What does the scientific prominence atop China’s ruling body say, if anything, about the role of science and technology in China's ability to compete against the U.S. and the world in terms of innovation and economic might?

Quick, name a scientist member of your government’s top offices.

That’s a tough one if you’re an American, as out of the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, only 22 have science or engineering backgrounds, and of these only two might be considered experienced scientists or engineers. As an American myself, I guess that would explain why I tend to assume all politicians were lawyers in their previous lives.

You have to be pretty popular to get elected, so should we conclude that Chinese people in general look up to and admire their scientists? Former CEO of Lockheed Martin, Norm Augustine, writes in Forbes that that’s exactly the case–and not only in China: “...scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S.”

Okay, fine. We’re weird for not thinking pocket-protectors are sexy. But a country that doesn’t think science is cool raises children who don’t think science is cool. The most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA; 2010) showed that 15-year olds in the U.S. perform average in reading and science skills and below average in math compared to 15-year olds in other countries. Thirty-four countries were assessed in all by the PISA test, considered to be the most comprehensive of its type. Out of those 34 the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

China’s 15-year olds also took the test. They ranked 1st, 1st, and 1st.

Actually, the test in China was performed by city and the top placings were earned by Shanghai, not China as a whole. But don't think the scores are an anomaly. Coming in second place for math was Singapore; third, Hong Kong.

Anybody got a spitball?

Societies such as that found in China emphasize academic excellence, often to the detriment of creative development and individual expression.

I’ll admit it, I’m jealous. The U.S. has the greatest academic institutions in the world, but our children are finding it increasingly more difficult to enter their hallowed halls–or at least their science departments. Bill Gates, a guy who knows a little about technology, wrote a wonderful piece in the Washington Post outlining his concerns about current U.S. trends: “Half of this country’s doctoral candidates in computer science come from abroad. It’s not in our national interest to educate them here but send them home when they’ve completed their studies.” As recently reported in Forbes, 70% of engineers with PhD’s from U.S. universities are foreign-born. Part of the problem is a waning interest among Americans for technical degrees. The journal Science reports that the U.S. ranks “60th [among world nations] in the proportion of college graduates receiving natural science and engineering degrees.”

So how do these stats from academia translate in the ‘real’ world? The Forbes article listed these trends:

-In 2009, for the first time, over half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
-Between 1996 and 1999, 157 new drugs were approved in the U.S. From 1999 to 2009, that number has dropped to 74.
-China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.

Pretty harrowing if you’re concerned about U.S. competitiveness, not so harrowing if you think worldwide technological development is a good thing. Identifying with the former, the National Academies–essentially the Who’s Who of U.S. scientists–have in recent years written a manifesto detailing their thoughts regarding the future intersection of U.S. technology and economic competitiveness. Its title, “The Gathering Storm,” leaves little doubt as to how the country’s best scientists stand. It’s a doomsday depiction of what’s in store for the U.S. if we don’t step up our STEM game; that is, if we don’t both promote interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and do a better job teaching the subjects to our children. The argument, based on the types of data I included above, is essentially: 1. Compared to the rest of the world we’re getting dumber in STEM; 2. Strength in STEM enables innovation; 3. From innovation springs economic competitiveness; 4. We will eventually be outcompeted if we don’t fix 1.

Scientific recommendations in the past have often met resistance on Capitol Hill and with certain sects of society, but “The Gathering Storm” got a lot of attention. Many states acted on the Storm’s recommendations, influential members of the private sector formed an organization specifically to address many of the concerns raised, George W. Bush’s America COMPETES Act was signed into law in 2007. Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, deemed it “a new New Deal urgently called for by our times.”

Doomsday indeed for those of us worried about U.S. competitiveness. We really need to hit those books and stop playing video games so much if we’re going to be able to stand toe-to-toe against the next would-be superpower that is not only really good at algebra but has an economy that’s just blowin’ up.

Wait a second. This all sounds familiar doesn’t it? Ah yes, the eighties! Ah yes, Japan!

Let’s talk about Japan.

The emphasis on academic excellence is not quite as high in the U.S. as it is in many other countries.

Their “Roaring Eighties” reached its pinnacle when the Nikkei index peaked on December 29, 1989. In 1990 Japan’s gross domestic product per capita overcame the U.S.’s per capita GDP to become the highest in the world. And Japanese students are pretty good in math and science, right? Ranking 9th in math and 5th in science in the PISA test, their 15-year olds certainly performed better than American 15-year olds. If we take the National Academies’ word for it, that skilled mathematicians and scientists enable innovation, and we also assume that a booming economy would empower innovation, then Japan’s innovative powers and economic competitiveness should have skyrocketed out of the 80s much as China’s are predicted to do in the coming decades.

They didn’t.

The economic model that raised Japan from its post-World War II doldrums to its finest decade turned out to be ill-fitted to carry them further. As argued in Richard Katz’s book, “Japan: The System That Soured,” the ideas that led to the country’s resounding recovery had “outlived their usefulness once Japan’s economy matured. And yet Japan could not bring itself to leave them behind.” Japan’s critical shortcoming was its inability to use its newly acquired global influence as a springboard to new industries ripe for the taking. As Katz points out, “All along the economic horizon were a host of infant industries, from autos to electronics, with the potential to become world-class competitors.”

Sounds to me like somebody didn’t innovate.

Japan’s breakneck growth was built on the shoulders of their auto and electronics industries, both of which still remain two of the world’s largest. They continue today to improve the technologies, making them cheaper and faster. But cheaper and faster isn’t the kind of innovation U.S. scientists are so worried about losing. It’s the groundbreaking, paradigm-changing innovation that creates entire new markets. It’s the kind of innovation that produces Apple, Microsoft, Google, eBay, Amazon, and Facebook.
Another way we could estimate innovation is by counting Nobel Laureates. Wikipedia’s list shows that since 1980 U.S. scientists have garnered 129 Nobel Prizes for chemistry, physics, or physiology or medicine. Over that same period only 13 Japanese scientists have brought home the Prize. Importantly, a significant number of U.S. Nobels were won by foreign-born Americans. It is an enormous advantage to be able to attract the world’s top minds to your country. No other country does that better than the U.S.

Recognizing this vital resource–nearly 31% of lead inventors in biotech are foreign-born–many scientists and entrepreneurs in the U.S. have warned that post 9/11 immigration laws are hurting the U.S.’s ability to attract and retain foreign talent. A recent study in Nature Biotechnology argues that that’s simply not true, that “the specter of the ‘reverse brain drain’ appears to be based largely on myths.”
Oh, we forgot about our head of the class: China. Astonishingly, since 1980 China has not won a single scientific Nobel Prize. Keep in mind, this is a country of 1.3 billion people.

Apparently you don’t just mix math and science together and out pops innovation. Maybe what’s needed is a little spice called attitude. New ideas are not solely the result of knowledge and expertise. Often new ideas are preceded by a burning desire to make a breakthrough.  This desire can arise from noble aspirations, as in the case of wanting to cure cancer, or not-so-noble aspirations as in wanting to be known as the guy who cured cancer–and got rich doing it. My guess is the latter situation provides motivation for many more than the former. I don't believe the creators of Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook were driven by the conviction that people desperately needed computers, online books, or yet another way to socialize. They wanted to make names for themselves, and get rich doing it. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit and Americans have lots of it. The same is not true for many countries.

A brilliant article in New York Magazine by Wesley Yang highlights differences between American and Chinese cultures that may contribute to the "bamboo ceiling"–the lack of Asian-Americans occupying high-level business positions despite their being overrepresented at lower level, more technical positions. Yang narrows it down to upbringing: "To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. ...It's simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and 'pumping the iron of math' is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things."

But if we buy this argument–that attitude makes up for aptitude–then one might look at U.S. math and science scores as they plummet on tests like PISA and wonder if attitude will be enough. How far can entrepreneurial drive take you if you don't have the technical wherewithal to make good on that drive? Not very far, the National Academy members I'm sure would have you believe.

I disagree. Despite ranking 25th and 17th on the PISA test, I think the U.S. can actually do math and science, and do it damn well. We might not have the best scores on average, but our institutions have some of the brightest minds in the world. And I'm not just talking about the M.I.T.s and the Harvards and the Caltechs, I'm talking about the U Michigans, U Marylands, and the U Washingtons too. Do you think the people at our top 50 academic institutions will rank 25th in math? It seems to me that these think centers–and the companies founded by their scientists, engineers, physicians, entrepreneurs–more than make up for lackluster math and science scores across the country as a whole. Smart people is not a resource the U.S. lacks.

Japan's example confirms what experts have been telling us for a while now: innovation is crucial. But Japan's failure to innovate–and their subsequent economic demise–puts into question the supposed importance of math and science. It also questions the innovation-fueled rise of China that groups like the National Academies color as inevitable. I don't doubt that Americans spend less time studying math and science than people in countries like China and Japan. Nor do I doubt that we spend more time dreaming up the 'next big thing.' Americans value freedom of thought and new ideas, and these values are coupled to an irrepressible urge to stand out in the crowd. An open, capitalist society produces flexible institutions. That flexibility may just be a strength that science and technology alone cannot outcompete.

[image credits: chinadigitaltimes.net, amazon.com]
image 1: chinadigitaltimes
image 2: amazon

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 20 Responses

  • Rafael Pinto May 17, 2011 on 9:49 am

    Engineers aren’t scientists…

  • digi_owl May 17, 2011 on 9:50 am

    Engineer do not a scientist make…

  • wildzbill May 17, 2011 on 10:43 am

    We need to get more students to focus on math and science. Perhaps I only say that because I excelled at them.
    At the same time, it IS about attitude. As a science geek I was not a part of the social scene. I did not network.
    Understanding people, society and science is all part of the mix.
    Instilling that BURNING DESIRE to succeed. To create something new. To be better, richer, stronger than everyone else. How do you teach that?

  • PatrikD May 17, 2011 on 11:06 am

    Yes, *engineers*, not scientists.

    I happen to think that there is often less difference between scientists and engineers than either side would want to admit, but that’s a separate issue. If you’re going to quote someone else’s article, then you should quote them correctly, and not twist it to better fit your own narrative.

    Forbes: “In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers.”

  • Peter Murray May 17, 2011 on 12:34 pm

    Thanks for the feedback everyone.

    Okay, fair enough.

    Coming from a research background myself I have a strict definition of a scientist as someone who reads the literature, generates ideas and performs experiments to test those ideas. Hydraulic engineers don’t do that. However, I was trying to make a distinction between technically-trained leaders and non-technically-trained. Here scientists and engineers fall into the same group. My apologies to the fellow lab rats out there.

  • Brett Howell May 17, 2011 on 2:09 pm

    I love Singularity Hub, and this article is very thought provoking….. but clearly geography is suffering within the US education system too:

    “… China was performed by city and the top placings were earned by Shanghai, not China as a whole. But don’t think the scores are an anomaly. Coming in second place for math was Singapore; third, Hong Kong.”

    Er… Singapore, REALLY? Not only is it not a Chinese city (it’s a sovereign city-state), but it’s not even connected to China in any way. Well no more than Panama is connected to the US.

    • pmurray Brett Howell May 17, 2011 on 8:33 pm

      Sorry Brett, didn’t mean to imply that Singapore was part of China. Just listing the top 3. Guess I should have listed number 5: Chinese, Taipaei.

      • junquan pmurray May 18, 2011 on 10:16 pm

        Never heard of Chinese, Taipai. I think you mean Taiwan, which is not a part of China either.

    • Chris Robato Brett Howell May 17, 2011 on 11:55 pm

      If you ever been to Singapore, there are a *lot* of ethnic Chinese people. It is an enclave of Chinese culture. Note the names of its founders and leaders.

    • Rob Riedel Brett Howell May 18, 2011 on 2:42 pm

      It was pretty obvious from the article that he was referring to hong kong as part of china. Being condescending does not make you look smart. Being condescending when you are wrong does make you look stupid.

      • Brett Howell Rob Riedel May 18, 2011 on 5:25 pm

        My apologies guys. As I read it, it certainly seemed that Singapore was being considered China. That said, I was hoping it would come off tongue-in-cheek rather than condescending – and I only commented because it was apropos the article’s core subject of the US education system.

        @Chris Robato – Incidental to my apology, I would like to say that I have spent a great deal of time travelling and working in both Singapore and China and I don’t agree with the “enclave of Chinese culture”. I think they couldn’t be further from each other culturally.

  • Ishamael May 17, 2011 on 2:25 pm

    and yet, America as a whole is tanking as a society. The middle class is being driven to poverty, the poor are dumpster diving. How’s that innovation working out for you?

    Sure, Japan could have innovated, but nothing suggests that they would be better off now for that innovation. American’s inflation adjusted average income hasn’t really moved much since the early 70’s. That’s on top of the deflationary conditions brought on by cheap goods and services due to global outsourcing of manufacturing and services.

    There are hundreds of grad students in the sciences that don’t have a job or even a prospect for one in this country — that’s what’s likely the killer of the science popularity — there’s no jobs for them — and when there are jobs, the pay usually sucks. The reason why Phd’s return to their country of origin is mostly linked (I’m guessing) to the lack of job opportunities in this country for Phd’s in general.

    Furthermore, there’s plenty of innovation that occurs in asian countries — even when making something cheaper and faster. As for world changing innovation, I’m having a hard time trying to think of anything major in the last 20 years that doesn’t fall under of rubric of just improving something that already existed or previous tech in some new fashion.

    As for the bamboo curtain, while those theories espoused in the nyt article are thought provoking, I’m tending to go with just racism. It may not be a conscious thing, but asian techie coolies are much better tolerated than asian bosses.

  • rickjohnston May 17, 2011 on 2:26 pm

    The comments so far miss an important implication. I submit that a governing body made of of engineers and scientist(I think a good engineer is a scientist), is far superior to one made of lawyers. Our politicians have little or no understanding of how create a stable system. Simple engineering concepts associated with control, stable systems and feedback are necessary to create and maintain stable and effective government systems. Therefore I see our future being determined by a race between singulariy predictions and a rapidly improving Chinese nation.

  • wildzbill May 17, 2011 on 2:53 pm

    Engineer VS Scientist
    I have worked with about seven different scientists and plenty of engineers. I would say that an engineer would make a great leader, while most scientists would not. An engineer takes known principles and makes something work. A scientists tries out new ideas.
    I would much rather have a leader that made things work, rather than someone that tried out their ideas on my society.
    Beyond that, I would much rather have either of them instead of a leader that believed that a divine being would solve the problems.

  • Ver Greeneyes May 17, 2011 on 8:29 pm

    Something to consider is that scholastic ability doesn’t necessarily equate with any interest in science or ability to think outside the box. I shall quote an American who’s lived in China for many years now (without his permission mind you – I don’t think he cares, but should he see this… hi!):

    “From teaching at a university here for one year, I am of the opinion that the undergraduate programs here are essentially worthless. Most students have to waste credits on Maoism, Dengism and other bullshit political courses where you essentially regurgitate dogma or fail the class. All grades are systematically “fixed” based on Party affiliation or cash donations. I had a few special meetings where I was informed I couldn’t give a failing grade to a certain student, and the school refused to discuss why. I failed him anyway, and he was back in my class the next semester – and apparently I had given him a 90/100 for the previous semester.

    About three or four students in each class of twenty were able to form and state their own original idea when asked about a topic. There was not a lot of deep thinking going on in that classroom. For the end of the first semester, I gave them two months to work on a researched, persuasive paper on a topic of their choosing. I told them to bring me a list of five ideas they were passionate about, and I would help scratch out ones that would not work well for the assignment. People brought me topic ideas as deep as “Coldplay is the greatest band ever,” “[Name] celebrity is hot,” “Japanese people sux,” and “Playing video games is healthy.”

    These are 20-year-olds, mind you.”

  • Josh Feola May 17, 2011 on 10:38 pm

    interesting article. i have to agree with other people that in this case the distinction between “engineer” and “scientist” is important. i also don’t think this trait is necessarily indicative of cultural popularity. remember that China is not a democracy and these people were not elected, but rather advanced along an internally regulated hierarchy depending on their ability to manage and execute any variety of infrastructural projects. this is why the top management is so engineer-heavy: modern China’s rise is, more than anything, a massive engineering project.

    Frank Yu has written eloquently about the difference in educational background between Chinese and American leaders:


  • Joe Nickence May 18, 2011 on 12:59 am

    I’ve personally thought that the US would run much more efficiently if it’s leaders were scientists instead of lawyers. NASA wouldn’t be in the fix it’s in now. But that’s another topic. We need to remember that for all of China’s public face, there is still the underlying foundation of communism that calls the shots. “YOU will be a scientist. End of discussion.”

    • Dan Heskett Joe Nickence May 18, 2011 on 6:14 am

      “YOU will be a scientist. End of discussion.”

      You are sadly mistaken about how China is run. There is no such central control like you speak of. The top slots for the best schools are insanely competitive and individual driven.

  • Rob Riedel May 18, 2011 on 2:44 pm

    Geezus you nitpickers about scientists and engineers really need to work on your reading comprehension. Clearly scientists and engineers are not the same, but within the context of the article, they are very similar in comparison to lawyers in the US. give the author a break yeesh.

  • gazhayes May 18, 2011 on 11:55 pm

    1. Engineers are not scientists

    2. They weren’t elected leaders

    3. Being politically connected, none of the leaders would have needed to actually do anything to get their qualifications. It’s merely a box that needs to be ticked. Even the commoners today can easily get through uni without sitting a single exam if they have the cash. It’s interesting how out of 1.3b people to choose from they decided to test the cream of the crop in Shanghai for this study.

    4. If the author had spent any time in China, they would know that an “engineer” in China is NOT the same as an “engineer” in the USA. This is a mistranslation. An “engineer” in China is equivalent to a “technician” in the US.

    5. The reason so many Chinese come to study in the US is because the Chinese education system cannot give them what they need – none of these high level government officials would consider sending their kids to a domestic Chinese school that the normal population attend. First they go and study overseas (e.g. the US), then when they come back to go to the cadre’s school. At no point is a standard domestic school involved. The only reason the current leaders studied in China was because they grew up during the cultural revolution and it would be a death sentence to have studied overseas – being loyal to Mao and the party was infinitely more important than studying.

    6. The culture, education system, governance, legal system, etc etc in mainland China is completely different to that of Hong Kong and Singapore. For the purposes of this study, the only thing these places have in common is that they have a large number of Asians in the population.