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Exploding stars and expanding horizons

Updated: Jan 18, 2021 CAS Print
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When I was invited to come to China from the UK, I found the decision to accept the offer very troublesome. My main fields of expertise are supernovae — exploding stars — and the evolution of compact binary stars. I knew that there were already good scientists working on these topics in China, but I didn’t know whether the conditions in which they were working would be good for me. So I asked for advice from many people. The responses I received divided roughly into three groups: “Go to China because it will be good”, “Don’t go to China because it will be bad” and “Go to China because, even if it is bad, it will be extremely interesting”. Their opinions about the standard of living and the possible difficulties of daily life were complicated, but their thoughts on science can be more easily summarized. The positive people were mostly thinking about how rapidly science in China seemed to be improving. Although the negative people agreed that Chinese science was developing, they typically worried that there was still a very long way to go, and that the necessary transformations could be slow and difficult.

[Photo/CAS]

I first visited NAOC over five years ago, more than two years before moving to NAOC. On that occasion I was accompanying an Oxford University professor who was scheduled to give a colloquium. Whilst our hosts were very kind, I was surprised by how few other people were sufficiently interested to come hear the seminar. There also didn't seem to be much interaction between different research groups. At that time I wondered whether some of the negative rumours I had heard about Chinese science were true: perhaps the institution of NAOC was somehow more an industrial “paper factory” than a lively, creative, curiosity-driven place. That wouldn’t necessarily have been the fault of the individual researchers, but perhaps their environment, or the expectations of the system in which they were operating.

Whatever the truth of the situation, more than half a decade ago, the NAOC which I personally experience now has improved compared to the impression I took away with me then. There is now a regular and reasonably well-attended NAOC colloquium. A daily institute coffee-time and informal inter-group seminars have also been created to promote discussions. This development is very important to me. One of the things I miss most from Oxford is the large amount of time we spent informally but very thoughtfully discussing new work and new ideas, even when they were outside our personal areas of expertise. In the short term those discussions did cost a lot of hours when we could have been more superficially productive as individuals. Some outsiders might have thought that we were wasting time. But over the long term those interactions were absolutely vital to my development as an astrophysicist, helped me to see subjects from different perspectives, and eventually helped to inspire almost all of my best ideas. I’m sure that those conversations and constructive arguments also aided young scientists to see that we do what we do — especially our most creative work — from enthusiasm, not from obligation. So I very much look forward to the day when such discussions are equally natural, spontaneous and productive here. I wouldn’t be surprised if that day happens soon, but it hasn’t quite arrived yet.

I suspect that I may have been lucky with the people I’ve met here. For example, I’ve enjoyed the fact that the leader of the group of which I’m a member is happy for me to be flexible and follow the best and most exciting science, not just to stay trapped within one fixed project. I hear that some young Chinese scientists are not so fortunate. Working with someone from a completely different group on a paper published in Nature was extremely fun. Together we were solving a fascinating puzzle about the universe that no-one had ever done before, not just working at a job. Of course, we were trying to be excellent whilst enjoying ourselves. Aiming for excellence is where part of the pleasure comes from. I hope that I manage to convey this to the students in the graduate class that I teach, although sometimes I fear that too many of them have become accustomed to regurgitation rather than exploration.

I strongly expect that I have also had some significant advantages as a foreigner here — not just by being given generous research grants for equipment, but also by experiencing less pressure to rush to publish first-author papers. Another positive consequence of being in Beijing is being able to meet the many fascinating visitors who pass through. Talking with them, and occasionally collaborating with them, has been an experience I might not have had in many other places. Whilst life here is considerably more complicated and less comfortable than it would have been at home, it has certainly been interesting.

Perhaps more important than the changes I’ve already seen is the genuine hunger for further improvement. Many people appear to share the same hopes for how excellent Chinese scientists can be helped to realise their potential. I’m especially encouraged by what I’ve read about Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) reforms that were announced this year. The stated intention to strongly value excellent quality and teamwork more than simple quantity of first-author output seems perfect. If successful, it should help to overturn the most common negative stereotype of Chinese science, and to stimulate more genuine innovation. I’m also pleased about the aim to make it easier for scientists to focus on doing good science rather than worrying about writing grants and bureaucracy, or even worrying about the rapidly-increasing cost of living in Beijing! Of course, the corollary of that is that the system has previously pushed people towards quantity of output rather than quality of science, and towards getting research grants and building their own personal empires for the wrong reasons.

I came to China with many ideas for projects I wanted to work on. I’m sad to admit that I have so far failed to finish working on anything like all of the ideas I had imagined back then. Perhaps I will soon be able to work with my own students and postdocs to explore some of those thoughts. However — and perhaps more importantly for now — I’m pleased to say that being at NAOC has helped me to generate novel ideas for the future. The environment is also moving more towards a centre that encourages good scientists to be truly curious and creative. There is certainly more to do before the situation is ideal, but it seems like the CAS has realised that is the case. Hopefully the reforms will lead to many of the best students choosing to become scientists, and that they will then be able to pursue their own excellent ideas in an exhilarating and collaborative-but-intellectually-critical community. Then we will genuinely be helping young scientists reach for the stars.

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