Chinese-American mathematician Yau Shing-Tung, who was awarded the Fields Medal, also known as the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics,” in 1982, has called on China to change its approach to rewarding researchers in order to retain top talent. Yau, who left the United States for a position at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2022, emphasized the need for China to value cutting-edge and substantive research that inspires researchers to solve major scientific problems.
Speaking at a talk on the present and future of mathematics in China at Fudan University in Shanghai, Yau highlighted the growing number of young academics who are choosing to have a career in China and are as brilliant as their peers in Europe and the United States. However, he pointed out that these researchers face a major dilemma: do they pursue their own interests and truth in research, or do they cater to the preferences of reviewers in order to win grants and awards?
Yau criticized the current system of academic awards, honours, and promotions in China, where most decisions are made by experts within the country. He noted that these experts are often relatively old and their understanding of the latest developments in their field may not always be accurate. In addition, he pointed out that researchers are often judged based on the number of papers they publish and the ranking of the journals they publish in, which may not be sufficient for pioneering research at the forefront of a discipline.
Yau argued that China urgently needs a more scientific, fair, and open evaluation system as part of a healthy academic environment. He stressed that for China to rise as a mathematics powerhouse on the world stage, young researchers need to be encouraged to set clear goals for breakthrough research and become world-class scholars, rather than simply pursuing titles and accolades such as being an academician or a Nobel Prize winner. He emphasized that the rise of a country in mathematics and science does not lie in its ability to follow others, but in its ability to open up new fields and conduct groundbreaking studies that attract researchers from around the world.
Yau also pointed out the importance of retaining top-level overseas scientists in China. Many competent scholars come to work in China with the hope of gaining a place on the international stage, but if China does not have an academic environment that supports their aspirations, they may choose to leave eventually. Yau called for much-needed reform in the evaluation system to ensure that China can retain and attract the best talent in mathematics and science.
Yau’s comments come at a time when competition in science and technology is intensifying between China and the United States. Decision makers in Beijing have repeatedly pledged to overhaul the rigid research system to enable science to thrive despite hi-tech sanctions from Washington. Yau, who retired from Harvard University in 2022 after 35 years there, has dedicated much of his time and energy to training young mathematicians in China, and his insights are seen as valuable in shaping the future of mathematics research in the country.
In conclusion, Yau Shing-Tung’s call for China to foster innovation and long-term thinking in order to retain top talent in mathematics and science highlights the need for a more scientific, fair, and open evaluation system in the country. By valuing cutting-edge and substantive research, encouraging young researchers to set clear goals for breakthrough research, and creating a supportive academic environment, China can rise as a global powerhouse in mathematics and science. The retention and attraction of top-level overseas scientists will be crucial in achieving this goal, and Yau’s insights serve as a valuable guide for the future of mathematics research in China.