I’m stuck on a comment in Bill Maher’s closing commentary last week. He said something like, “In America, we can’t stop doing dumb stuff and we can’t start anything big and important.” Once a government program gets started, we can’t kill it after it has served its useful purpose. The health care (or immigration or tax or defense) debate seems to illustrate the other point—we can no longer initiate big programs with big goals. The stimulus bill may be an example to the contrary—we do some big stuff fast when we’re really scared.

Being interested in education and innovation, here’s a connection from my friend Rob Wuebker. “The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a series of articles on the competitiveness of US higher education versus Asia; see here and related links (may require subscription). See also earlier posts Meritocracy in China , Brainpower and Globalization. This describes the steps Tsinghua University took to recruit Turing Award winner Andrew Yao, going as far as effectively creating an entire department of theoretical computer science. (Interestingly, Yao first earned a PhD in physics before switching to computer science.)”

Andrew Chi-Chih Yao’s trajectory suggests a genius’s quick ascent to success. Born in Shanghai, he studied hard, earned two Ph.D.’s from American universities, and at age 35 was a professor of computer science at Stanford University. By 2000, when he received the A.M. Turing Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in his field, younger computer scientists were memorizing a principle bearing his name.

But when Tsinghua University invited him to return to China to lead a new, generously financed institute in 2004, he jumped at the opportunity. “I was very excited,” he recalls.

In creating the Institute for Theoretical Computer Science, Mr. Yao says, he had free rein from Tsinghua’s administrators to determine everything from research topics to personnel.

Once in Beijing, he threw himself into the project, emerging with an institute that is today one of the university’s jewels and is increasingly known outside China.

The way Mr. Yao’s institute was created illustrates a central element of China’s higher-education strategy. When the government decides it wants to do something, it does it, and fast. (emphasis added)

Theoretical computer science—the abstract, intensely mathematical subfield that is Mr. Yao’s specialty—is poorly financed in the United States. It wasn’t originally a target area for China, either. But China has an approach different from that found in the United States: a desire to build outstanding institutions by attracting the leaders in a field—any field.

The repression of the Chinese people is disconcerting. But their ability to move fast is quickly producing improvements in education and infrastructure that will soon be hard to compete with. It’s odd that the US has been relegated to the role of lumbering giant while China is the nimble entrepreneurial country.

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