Why Are We Worried about China’s Paper Chase?

The June 30 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) included an article titled “While Debating Visas, U.S. May Miss Bigger Keys to Scientific Success” (requires subscription).  Given the ultrasensitive nature of immigration topics these days, readers might be forgiven for not catching the nuance in the title–which is intended to (correctly) convey the point that the article is actually NOT about the H-1B work visa or employer-based (EB-series) green cards.  Instead, to me the salient theme of the article is the growing competition between China and the U.S., though this theme turns out to have an H-1B/EB connection, as you’ll see.

I wrote in my recent blog posting on tech ethics of the very much heightened awareness in DC these days of China as a rival to the U.S. in tech prowess.  By coincidence, just this week a Chinese immigrant, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was convicted of selling U.S. firms’ trade secrets to companies in China.  (I was startled to learn that he lives in my suburban Bay Area city.)  There have been a number of such incidents, enough that the Wall Street Journal once ran a sidebar listing a number of the more interesting cases.  It’s clear that such cases will be prosecuted vigorously.

Though I am sharply critical of both the H-1B and EB-series green card programs, I have always strongly supported rolling out the immigration red carpet for the world’s “best and brightest” scientists and engineers.  It’s not entirely clear from the CHE article whether the highlighted scientist, Dr. Xiao-Wei Chen, is of best/brightest caliber, but let’s assume that he is.  The main point of the article is that the U.S. is about to lose him.  Basically, China made him a much more attractive offer, and DC finds this alarming.

The China Fear Factor is especially evident in this passage of the article:

“China is about to eat our lunch,” Rep. Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, told a staff briefing last month on Capitol Hill. She expressed particular concern about China’s getting close to overtaking the United States in the volume of research publications. “That indeed would be a tragic set of circumstances,” she said.

This is very highly misleading.  Contrary to what some university deans might think, counts of papers do NOT reflect the scientific productivity of an individual, an institution or a nation.  To compete with China on paper counts would make no more sense the the old “browser war” between Microsoft and Netscape, in which there was an escalating “arms race” to add more and more features that had less and less utility.

To be sure, China is indeed engaged in this paper chase.  The pressure is now on researchers in China to produce as many papers as possible, quality be damned.   The primary motivation behind this, I’m told, is that the Chinese government was upset that China has no highly-ranked, world class universities.  Upon investigating, they learned that one of the ranking criteria was…paper counts!  So, they’re gaming the system–just like some American professors do, I might add.

But it’s not good for China or the U.S. in any economic or intellectual sense.  On the contrary, it’s destructive, because it means that precious resources are being devoted to makework rather than on innovative, groundbreaking work.

Nevertheless, various members of Congress and of the Executive Branch see China as a looming economic threat, and they are taking ill-advised steps, such as proposing legislation to give automatic green cards to foreign STEM students who earn graduate degrees in the U.S.  The article correctly points out that the foreign students who want to stay do find a way to stay.  It’s always been that way, and indeed the vast majority of Chinese students and scholars in the U.S. end up staying here–without some blanket legislation that would give even master’s degree students at undistinguished state colleges automatic green cards.

Moreover, what is more disturbing is that many in DC see the green card programs as a way to “steal” STEM workers from China.  I had heard rumors of this for years, but still was taken aback when they were confirmed at a talk at Georgetown University I gave a few years ago on the quality of the foreign STEM students in the U.S.  An attendee came up to me afterward, and turned out to be a young green card case adjudicator at USCIS.  He said something close to this:   “I don’t see what the fuss is about.  My understanding is that our mission is to grab STEM students away from China.  The quality doesn’t matter.”

This is absurd on so many levels, but the most important one is this:  If STEM is indeed so vital to U.S. well being as everyone says it is, we should really focus on excelling in STEM fields–NOT constantly looking back over our shoulder at China, NOT using counterproductive measures of STEM productivity, and above all, NOT establishing policies that discourage our own best and brightest young people from pursuing STEM careers.

The situation in lab science fields, for instance, is atrocious.  We have a huge surplus of trained scientists, making lab science about as unattractive as possible to our young people.  Why are we overproducing doctorates in STEM, and considering importing more,  other than to please certain vested interests, notably the universities?  It would be nice if people like Jackie Spier worried about THAT, instead of counts of Chinese research papers.

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3 thoughts on “Why Are We Worried about China’s Paper Chase?

  1. Another insidious way to destroy STEM in the United States is by carelessly offshoring the manufacturing industrial base. The end result is like one end of a horse without the other end, an incomplete functionality. Design, development, manufactiring needs to be a physically connected iterative process, not a bunch of silos all over the place. P.S. What kind message does it send to would be scientists and engineers to see all their high tech gadgets labeled “made in China”?

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  2. US, the lone superpower, has had tremendous difficulty in creating high value added, high productivity tradable manufacturing and service jobs for its workers. On the other hand, China, supposedly an industrial backwater, has created substantial number of such jobs by devoting lion’s share of its resources into net fixed business capital investments.

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  3. “I have always strongly supported rolling out the immigration red carpet for the world’s ‘best and brightest’ scientists and engineers. It’s not entirely clear… whether the highlighted scientist… is of best/brightest caliber”

    It never is clear because the writers don’t think to investigate that. Most simply assume that every “scientist or engineer or software developer” is “best” or “brightest”, maybe because all of the ones they knew seemed that way to them. Besides, investigating such a thing, and making fine judgements, requires time and effort of kinds which journalists have hardly ever been especially good at doing.

    “Scientist. Highly-skilled.”; “Software developer. Highly-skilled.”; “Slaughter-house worker. Low-skilled.”; “Construction worker. Low-skilled.”, are the automatic and half the time incorrect associations.

    Recruiters want all candidates to say they’re a 10 on a 1-10 scale. They don’t want to hear about the average, the better than average, 2 standard deviations above the mean, etc. But they don’t want braggart 3s and 4s who claim they’re 10s, either. It’s a lot like grade inflation. After a while the sorting mechanism has been rendered worthless. And fewer hiring managers seem savvy enough to accurately gauge after a few minutes of talking shop. Everyone wants a fool-proof test that doesn’t cost the hiring manager much time or effort (and the time and cost to the job-seekers isn’t weighed on that scale), and preferably tests which are “objective” and will shield them from law-suits for biased hiring.

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