Comment: Forum Physics World  June 2016

Building a relationship with China

Barry Sanders says that successful collaboration with researchers in China can be fostered by being sensitive to cultural norms

Original blend Very different cultures can have successful collaborations if all parties are respectful. (Shutterstock / pathdoc)

I have a confession to make: I live a double life. For 80% of my time I am a professor at the University of Calgary in Canada – teaching, supervising students, writing grant applications and papers, etc. For the rest of my time, however, I am a based at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), where I travel between the university’s Hefei and Shanghai campuses and – you guessed it – teach, supervise students, write grant applications and papers, etc.

As a co-located scientist, I enjoy pondering the dichotomous oriental versus occidental scientific praxis. My two worlds are not strictly distinct due to the “global village” enabled by e-mail, Dropbox, Skype or QQ. Yet culturally and linguistically, the differences between my two homes are titanic.

In China, science is a serious business with the thrill of discovery playing second fiddle to the pragmatism of producing graduate students, writing papers and translating research into products. The western ambiance of genteel tearoom discussion yields to an eastern determination and perseverance to be productive. Senior Chinese scientists are invariably polite and respectful but often managerially focused with scientific discussions punctuated by interruptions from phone calls and text messages. At first I found such cacophony disturbing, but now I admire their multi-tasking skills.

My sinophilic research activities began in the 1990s when I was at Macquarie University in Australia. The Australian Academy of Science supported exchanges with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to build collaborations between the two countries and I experienced marvellous hospitality. I encountered an immense talent pool and an urge for China to become scientifically great despite a lack of research resources. In subsequent visits, I observed rapid infrastructural growth, a nurturing of young scientific talent and an astute scientific strategic focus. I felt I was witnessing history in the making as Chinese science accelerated.

In 2012 the USTC quantum-information scientist Jianwei Pan recommended me for a professorial position in his group as part of the 1000 Talents plan, which supports leading non-Chinese scientists to work in China. I took up the post in 2013 and I now lead a group at USTC, build collaborations within China and work wholeheartedly as a Chinese scientist for a good fraction of each year. Having been involved with China and its indigenous scientific effort for two decades now, I feel somewhat qualified to give basic advice to others thinking of following in my footsteps.

Following the rules

China is complicated, not only to Westerners but also to its own citizens. Foreign scientists can benefit greatly from collaborating with China but should first understand elements of the Chinese approach. As with any partnership, personal investment of time and effort is crucial, and Chinese scientists appreciate this engagement. Note that Chinese scientists and students can, however, be shy about not speaking English well, so you need to be forthright – a sense of humour and a smile are valuable for reducing tension.

While Western scientists seek to recruit students (euphemistically called “exchanges” but typically one-way), disseminate results via presentations, find potential funding and desire egalitarian collaboration, Chinese scientists usually have different aims. Most of the scientists I meet are seeking opportunities to visit labs abroad to collaborate on cutting-edge problems, get suggestions for well-defined PhD-level projects, and help their students to write papers at a high standard with good English. Chinese scientists also seek personal guanxi (“connections”), which is essential for surviving and thriving in China and, by extension, globally according to the Chinese way of thinking. Despite these disparate aspirations between many Western and Chinese scientists, common ground is easily achieved and leads to rewarding collaboration.

Ultimately, successful scientific research yields publications. However, do bear in mind that co-authorship rules are important and complicated in China. Current Chinese rules (always subject to frequent, drastic change) only credit the first and corresponding authors of a paper, who can be remunerated handsomely for the publication. In fact a student could even get a plum faculty position from being the first author on a top-journal paper. Another common practice in China is to add co-authors honorifically even if their contributions to the paper are negligible. If a foreign co-author objects to this system, most Chinese would rather yield than protest or even explain that credit-seeking behaviour is unacceptably impertinent in China. A good foreign partner needs to be sensitive to the Chinese aversion to professional conflict.

Such authorship practices can, however, cause consternation to Western scientists because they contradict our own system. I once explained aspects of the Chinese author protocol at an editorial meeting and then endured a zealous diatribe about its unethical nature. I fully understand this perspective but do not agree with this moral outrage. Chinese norms are not going to disappear quickly and perhaps nor should they. Culture clashes need to be resolved through appropriate discourse – not by imposing one culture on another.

China has many opaque rules that are hard for a foreigner to understand. For example, I cannot reimburse part of a visitor’s airfare – it is all or nothing. Travel abroad for Chinese academics is restricted to a few days and grant-spending rules are rigid at times and fluid in other ways. These complexities are part of what I love discovering in the arcane universe of Chinese science, but these layers of complexity surpass the requisite knowledge for successful collaboration for foreigners who do not plan to move to China.

As long as a Westerner selects a good collaborative partner, is genuine in intent, committed to the project, willing to visit regularly and is aware of and respects cultural differences, the prognosis for successful collaboration is excellent.

  • See Barry Sanders expand on this topic in the video below.

What it’s like collaborating with physicists in China