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How did China’s Sun Yat-sen University beat Oxford, Cambridge and Yale on natural science research?

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How did China’s Sun Yat-sen University beat Oxford, Cambridge and Yale on natural science research?

  • The lesser-known university in Guangzhou is in the global top 10 of an index measuring the number of studies featured in leading journals
  • It has invested heavily in research, but its employment practices and treatment of academic staff have proved highly controversial

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Zhang Tong in Beijing
Published: 2:04pm, 27 Jun, 2023
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Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou has made a name for itself in research. Photo: Shutterstock

The admission letter sent by Sun Yat-sen University to new enrolees this year comes with a small gift box containing 99 grams of Puer, a fermented tea which – like a fine wine – becomes better with age.

The message is straightforward: welcome to a 99-year-old university which has aged well, especially in recent years.

According to the latest Nature Index, which measures research output, Sun Yat-sen University was ranked tenth in the world – above universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Yale.

The Nature Index, compiled by the respected British journal Nature, tracks contributions to research articles published in 82 of the world’s most influential natural science journals. It does not include contributions to other branches of science, such as mathematics or theoretical physics.

The latest ranking, based on scientific research output between February 1 last year and January 31, was topped by Harvard and dominated by Chinese universities, which contributed seven of the top 10.

Located in Guangzhou, the capital of the southern province of Guangdong, the university is relatively unknown outside China and academic circles. It ranked only 267th in this year’s QS World University Rankings, which measures performance across a wider range of academic disciplines.

But the university’s strength in high-quality research has been on a dramatic upwards trajectory in recent years thanks to luck, ample research funding, and an aggressive talent recruitment policy that has drawn more frowns than applause.

According to the Nature Index website, it ranked only 78th in 2018, but in less than five years its output in natural sciences more than doubled.

In contrast, universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, as well as American universities like Stanford and University of California Berkeley, are seeing a downward trend.

The unexpected performance of Sun Yat-sen University this year was in part due to a change in the statistical method used in the latest year’s ranking. Starting this year, the Nature Index database began including articles from 64 medical journals to track trends in health sciences and broaden coverage.

The university has a strong medical tradition, and its provincial key laboratories and 10 affiliated hospitals have made many valuable contributions, aiding the rise in this year’s rankings.

It has also been helped by increased funding as a result of its new Shenzhen campus, which opened in August 2020.

Its total budget for 2021 and 2022 has been over 19 billion yuan (US$2.6 billion), putting it in China’s top five.

Its research budget has also been increasing year on year. According to its website, it rose from 2.3 billion yuan in 2016 to 4 billion yuan in 2021.


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But it has also increased its research and teaching staff, using unconventional – and sometimes controversial – methods to do so.

Since 2015, it has recruited a large number of young researchers using a different system from the common tenure-track employment system, which tends to offer a stable, long term-career path for researchers.

Instead, Sun Yat-sen University employs researchers on a short-term basis, with far more employees than there are long-term positions available – a set-up described as “enter the university first, then compete for a job”.

The researchers also face extremely strict assessments as they compete for these positions, resulting in a high turnover of staff.

Some discussions online have suggested that only 10 per cent of academics are able to meet their targets and remain for longer than a year. Of those who remain, many more are forced to leave within three years. Critics have also complained that the low salaries paid to these academics is a form of exploitation.

“This ‘enter the university first, then compete for job’ scheme has caused dissatisfaction among young academics and has greatly affected the university’s reputation, receiving severe criticism on online forums,” according to Zhishifenzi.com, an influential science news website.

One academic, who asked for anonymity, said staff were not allowed to comment freely on the university’s policies and must gain permission before speaking to the media.

The university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Initially named Guangdong University, the institution is named after its founder, the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, who placed great emphasis on education and established it in 1924 to train researchers.

In October 2001, the original Sun Yat-sen University merged with Sun Yat-sen University of Medical Sciences.

Apart from natural sciences, it is also one of the country’s leading universities in fields such as philosophy, ecology, sociology and business administration and received a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron during his recent trip to China.

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French President Emmanuel Macron at Sun Yat-sen University earlier this year. Photo: AFP

The report indicates around two thirds of its scientific output comes from domestic collaborations and around one third from international partnerships.

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Its top three domestic collaborators are the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Southern Medical University, and Zhejiang University. Internationally, the university collaborates with the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, Harvard University, National University of Singapore and the University of Basel.

Recently it has been trying to boost its strength in engineering subjects such as big data, artificial intelligence and robotics, as a part of Guangdong province’s higher education enhancement plan.

The university has also set ambitious plans for further development. In a statement on its website it says that before 2030 it aims to become a “world-class university with integrated development of liberal arts, science, medicine and engineering, with extensive international influence”.
 

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Pakistanis should start sending their children to Chinese universities.

But we need to learn Mandarin language. China should set up Confucius Institutes in Pakistan.
 
I don't know why it's being criticized?

As long as the method contributes more to humanity and science, it's fine even highly recommended for others to follow.

By the end of the 21st century, scientific output and technological breakthroughs will be 1000 times bigger than today.
 
It's fascinating to see Sun Yat-sen University making waves in natural science research! It goes to show that dedication and investment in research can yield remarkable results. However, it's essential to address concerns about employment practices and academic staff treatment, ensuring a balanced approach to success.
 
It's fascinating to see Sun Yat-sen University making waves in natural science research! It goes to show that dedication and investment in research can yield remarkable results. However, it's essential to address concerns about employment practices and academic staff treatment, ensuring a balanced approach to success.
However, it's essential to address concerns about employment practices and academic staff treatment, ensuring a balanced approach to success. Reflecting on this, I recall exploring https://oxfordacademy.net/ for insights into academic excellence during my undergrad years. The platform offered diverse perspectives on nurturing talent and fostering a supportive academic environment.
 
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