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Knowledge builds trust

Science thrives on a departure into the unknown in search of solutions to the great challenges of our time. How can we build trust and confidence across borders, across disciplines and right into the centre of society for this demanding journey? A recent Humboldt Colloquium in Beijing addressed these questions.

In an interview with Alumniportal Deutschland, two Humboldtians and Germany alumni continued the debate entitled “Bonds of Trust – Shaping the Sino-German Research Network of the Future”: Professor Jay Steven Siegel, an American expert on organic molecular chemistry and Humboldt Research Award winner who researches and teaches at Tianjin University, and Dr Ting Guan, a social scientist, assistant professor at Beijing Normal University and former German Chancellor Fellow.

Most people would agree that challenges like climate change or global health can only be solved if they are researched in an interdisciplinary way. How can mutual trust across various disciplines be strengthened?

Ting Guan: There is a very strong call for interdisciplinary research, especially in the above-mentioned fields and in my own research area, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs cover very broad fields. Many people say that the SDGs can only be deemed political compromises and will not facilitate the achievement of anything new. But in my opinion, the SDGs, together with other global concerns, can be seen as a trigger to promote interdisciplinary collaborations, to collectively explore something new and find new solutions (for tackling global challenges).

These collaborations provide opportunities for researchers in different fields to communicate with each other and learn from each other, and attentively share their views and expertise with others on certain common issues. For example, early this July I invited one expert in environmental science to Tsinghua University to give a report on the implementation of the SDGs. He provided a perfect analysis of the trade-offs between ecological footprint and the SDGs based on relevant data, which came to the conclusion that if you want to reduce ecological footprint you should not implement the SDGs.

But I as a social scientist hold quite different opinions, because different disciplines have different assumptions and research methods. Although we won’t reach a consensus on this issue immediately, this exchange does provide us with an opportunity to better understand each other, and we plan to conduct an exploratory collaboration on this topic.
Jay Steven Siegel: I have no trouble trusting work done in the humanities. You have to look at the methods of inquiry that were used, what were the presumptions. The example Dr Guan gives is a good one. If the decision-making tree is driven just by data, then you might say, we don’t need SDGs, because these goals are just specifications. But the decision-making tree is not driven by data, it is driven by human beings. These goals set a precondition under which you can look at the data.

In the humanities or at the interface where science affects political policy you are often dealing with data limits that would make a natural scientist uncomfortable. But nonetheless a social or political scientist has to deal with this. It’s the communication that has to be improved. In many ways reporters need a better understanding of the methods of inquiry in these two areas and of the fact that they can’t take the results of an experiment or study in the humanities and simply translate it the way they would a study from the natural sciences. Once information is placed in the right context, I don’t see that trust is an issue.

Dr. Ting Guan

Beijing Normal University, China, Discipline: Social Sciences

2013/14 German Chancellor fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in 2013/14. Currently researching “Sustainability in a digitalized industry: A comparative study from China, Germany & Brazil” in an AvH-sponsored institute partnership with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam.

Speaking of communication. Do you see international differences when it comes to bringing scientific topics into the public eye?

Ting Guan: The publicity of German institutes is quite different to China. In my opinion, science in Germany is closer to the public, and researchers are encouraged to share their findings or ideas with the public. I saw that young researchers were encouraged to make short videos, trying to present their findings in a clear and vivid way on social media. When I think about science communication in China, researchers’ focus is mostly on journals or policy proposals. When researchers want to share their findings with the public, they are more likely to use traditional information channels, like mainstream media, which follow a top-down approach.

Meanwhile it can also be observed that apps such as Weibo or WeChat are becoming new platforms for researchers to share their ideas. For example, one of my colleagues really likes to share her findings with others, and she created a WeChat account to share the questions and ideas in her research. But of course these cases of science communication are mostly individual-driven.

Jay Steven Siegel: When it comes to popular news, I think that Europe does a better job presenting complex issues. And I think that is because the citizenry in general there is perhaps more prepared to read and to absorb and to discuss those issues. In the US things are very money- and popularity-driven.

Obviously in China the news media primarily is run by the central government and there are issues that are conjunct with that. What impressed me is that as a foreign expert I am called to a meeting every year in which we have a discussion on policies. The findings of these multi-day meetings go directly to Premier Li Keqiang. He has actually considered many points and remarks that came up in the sessions – we have seen cases of change. With regard to my personal situation, the way foreign experts are treated in China has changed dramatically in the last eight to ten years.

Ting Guan: On the Chinese side there are actually many channels to convey your findings to the government. It is not as complicated or bureaucratic as one would imagine. China’s government wants to know what is happening in the country and how to better serve the public and modernize governance systems.

When it comes to the public, do you see a risk that trust in science is being eroded? How can this be prevented?

Jay Steven Siegel: I think the threat of loss of trust is there and it is enormous. It also stems from a confrontation between the intelligentsia and the common man or woman. Propaganda does not necessarily mean political propaganda; it can also mean that someone is starting an argument knowing where he wants that argument to end. And there occurs this arrogance of intelligence, not giving the counterpart all the news and information. That breeds mistrust. We are increasingly moving away from freedom of speech to a polarization of speech. Anything that lets us get back to educating the populace at large and informing them in a non-biased way – both are needed – will be a good way to strengthen trust.

Professor Jay Steven Siegel

Dean of the School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology at Tianjin University, China

He was named as one of the 40 most influential foreign experts in China’s 40 years of opening in 2018 and granted a Humboldt Research Award the same year.

Looking at young people going into science, what’s their situation?

Ting Guan: I see myself as a researcher at an early career stage. I think most young researchers in China are burdened with many pressures regarding publications, grants, and/or teaching courses. Therefore, we have to work hard and be optimistic because we need to keep healthy and productive in a sustainable way. I think this situation will not be changed in a short time. In my opinion, these high pressures on young researchers actually reflect the development stage the country is in right now.

The rapid economic development in China certainly does not come without costs; one of them is high expectations/pressure on young researchers. If asked what I would recommend to young people going into science, I would say: Apply for programmes like the Humboldt programmes. In my own case, I visited Germany when I was a PhD student. I wasn’t expected to publish any papers at that time, but I did conduct very successful collaborations with my host, absorb knowledge freely and become determined to be a social scientist. That year was such a trigger for me and encouraged me to follow my intrinsic motivation in science.

Professor Siegel, is that a good example of how science should work?

Jay Steven Siegel: In the institute we have set up, the School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology, we recognized that exactly that freedom and trust is what is needed. We know that universities all over China are asking for all kinds of things like numbers of publications or grants, and also specific placements. These expectations are unrealistic, if what you want to have are scholars. Those requirements in fact kill the critical facilities of the faculty. Because if I criticize a piece of work, maybe I won’t publish it. And therefore, if there is already an existing model that is well accepted, I might as well accept it, work with it. But accepting a working model instead of challenging it can lead to failure. The imposition of metric goals is connected to the heterogeneous higher education and research landscape in China.

There are more than 4,000 universities and the simple fact is that China is not yet in a position to control its own higher education system. There are still thousands of universities with good people who still don’t understand what research is, who don’t understand what a method of inquiry is, who could not formulate a proper question. That’s not because they are not ethical or trustworthy; it just isn’t available to them. At the top universities however there is a reasonable fraction of people who are driven by their own passions and who think critically. They don’t need a list saying, please publish ten science papers. They are great talents and they should be allowed the freedom to decide because they are following their own passion.

Interview: Daniela Becker

December 2019

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