DNA sculpture at China Science & Technology Museum, Beijing. Source: by Mitch Altman (via Flickr.com, CC-Lizenz (CC-BY-SA 2.0)), 2011.

Lise Meitner Research Group

China in the Global System of Science

The PR China is now the world’s largest producer of scientific articles. It is home to scientists whose groundbreaking and sometimes quite controversial findings and methods regularly make world news, and pours a staggering amount of money into funding research and frontier experiments, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, the Chinese political leadership has, with increasing vehemence in recent years, clearly formulated its ambition to make China a leading scientific power. This initiative represents probably the most overt utilization of science and scholarship for political goals since the bloc competition during the Cold War. From a distance, observers come to very different preliminary assessments of these developments: while some fear that global academia will be overwhelmed by the mere quantity of “Chinese science” which could also change the ways in which science is practiced, others assert it to be impossible to achieve genuine scientific and scholarly leadership under an authoritarian regime.

Going beyond sensational reporting, this Lise Meitner Research Group will take a close and comprehensive look at these various developments, with a special interest in exploring the role of the political regime and other social structures as environmental factors for science and scholarship in contemporary Chinese society, in international academic cooperation, and in world science.

Combining social science perspectives and area studies’ expertise, the Lise Meitner Research Group “China in the Global System of Science” provides a framework especially for the study of the following larger research themes and areas:

Chinese perspectives on the status of science and scholarship in society

  • This includes explorations of, at a macro level, conceptualizations of academic freedom and the autonomy of science and their potential alternatives; the evolution, connections and ruptures of narratives and paradigms of historical scientific greatness and achievements, socialist/Soviet heritage and Cold War-style system competition, the reform oriented “technocratic” model after 1978, and currently a seemingly new and unique sciento-nationalism; as well as the public understanding of science and scholarship, and the apparently increasing function and status of science and academic expertise in micro political contexts, including in local governance and public protest.

Structures, dimensions, and norms of China’s contemporary science policy

  • A mapping of the main goals, elements, priorities, and normative foundations of the Chinese government’s current political plans for science and scholarship, and of the institutions and actors in this policy field; studies of the related policy processes and practices observable, both domestically and in the international arena; and, for example, an analysis of the potentially involved frictions between the ideal of the “unity of science” vs. the selection of strategic national research topics and the seemingly special treatment of social sciences and the humanities.

Steering vs. agency of scientific communities, networks, and individuals in China and in international cooperation

  • Studies comprising an assessment of the impact of political steering across different disciplines, on communities, and on individuals and their networks; as well as an analysis of how much of scientific conduct and behavior is really steered or regulated, vis-à-vis the available room for independent initiative and agency, or even counter-strategies.

Interactions of scientific standards and practices with societal values and ethical principles in China and beyond

  • Analyses of what standards, values, and principles are discernible in science and in society at large, and whether one side impacts on or dominates the other, and how—both in China domestically and in global academic collaborations.

Group members and associates with diverse disciplinary backgrounds will pursue qualitative and quantitative analyses in and across these core research areas through individual and collaborative projects. Although the group’s research will mainly focus on the contemporary period and be based on approaches grounded in the social sciences, it will also include historical perspectives and a variety of innovative methods. The group also seeks to make its research accessible and available for comparative analyses and is looking forward to exchanging with scholars who work on similar topics in different time periods, contexts, or world regions.   

Read more in the MPIWG’s Feature Story “China in the Global System of Science.”        


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News & Press

Anna Lisa Ahlers interviewed in Max Planck Forschung magazine on “China in the Global System of Science"


Anna Lisa Ahlers and Andrea Braun Střelcová quoted in Nature on China and higher education


Anna Lisa Ahlers quoted in Süddeutsche Zeitung on the rise of China in the global system of science