Gravitational waves, as “ripples” of the space-time, were predicted by Einstein more than a century ago. As a new way of observing the universe, the detection of gravitational waves may unveil a lot of mysteries, such as the nature of spacetime and the properties of black holes. In 2003, when young Caltech Ph.D. Chen Yanbei went back to China to give a talk on gravitational wave detection, people thought it was an impossible undertaking — the detectors were too expensive, and the sensitivities required to detect gravitational waves were too high, said critics of the program.

However, popular opinion has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, particularly after the signal of gravitational waves was first detected in 2015 at the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

“Recently if you talked to people about gravitational wave detection, they would say LIGO is so cheap, why can’t we do something like that,” said Chen, now a Professor of Physics at Caltech, and a key member in the LIGO group.

In recent years, as gravitational wave detection became a hot topic, the Chinese government put a lot of effort in building detectors and telescopes, hoping to grasp a leadership position in gravitational wave detection. By 2018, China had launched its first Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope, Insight, to find electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational wave sources, and FAST, the world’s largest radio telescope, to look for pulsars, which can be used to detect ultra-low frequency gravitational waves.

Ongoing projects include building a gravitational wave observatory in Ngari Prefecture, a domestic gravitational wave project “Ali” that aims at detecting primordial gravitational waves, and two space exploration projects: “Taiji” and “Tianqin.” Both groups of scientists are aiming at building space-based gravitational wave detectors, to differentiate them from LIGO, which consists of ground-based detectors.

Professor Chen pointed out that China used to lag behind Europeans and Americans in space-based gravitational wave detection, but is now trying to catch up by sending scientists to Europe. He added that the reason Chinese scientists didn’t play a role in the early stage of research on the subject is that the importance of gravitational wave detection was not recognized at the very beginning, so the government didn’t fund much in this direction in the past.

The Chinese economy has grown quickly in the past 15 years. Now China has enough funding to support large-scale science projects, and to enhance international collaborations. In the meantime, more and more people have started to realize the importance of cutting-edge scientific research. As a result, China is catching up with the scientific development in America and Europe, and has become a key player in multiple fields, such as high energy physics and plasma physics. Now the issue is, in the future, how can China become a leader, instead of a follower?

“In the longer term, the government should invest in a field before it becomes important,” said Professor Chen. “But how do they do that? I don’t know.”

True, government support is crucial for scientific development, but it is the scientists, not the government, that discover the importance of a field. The question then boils down to who is taking the initiative in directing scientific research. In the U.S., funding is distributed by the National Science Foundation, where the decision-makers are scientists from research institutes. However, in China, the system of scientific research is strongly influenced by the government. While such a top-down intervention to science development allows China to quickly catch up with leading foreign research groups, it impedes the development of new ideas.

“Groundbreaking science ideas are fueled in a liberal environment that encourages curiosity and different opinions, like trees grow from the soil,” commented a Chinese scientist from Caltech who prefers to remain anonymous. “Now the scientific development in China is like planting potted flowers, with designated sizes and types.” He also pointed out that political factors had been playing a huge role in scientific development for a long time, and such intervention is likely to continue in the future.

Western scholars had been discussing Chinese scientific development for a long time. John K. Fairbank, the renowned scholar of Chinese history, argued that the Chinese political system is hostile to scientific progress. Yasheng Huang, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, pointed out that government intervention leads to bureaucracies, and the dissemination of research findings (research results that impact policy and stability may not be widely published), which weaken the impact of China’s massive investments in science and technology.

Aside from government intervention, another problem facing Chinese scientists is that they need to have the courage to start something completely new.

“If you want to be the person that follows the leader, you just follow the articles in top journals and do some follow-up work. That way you are safe, and you can still get a lot of citations. That’s why it is easy to catch up and to be the second. But to be the first, it takes a lot more courage and confidence,” said Professor Chen.

Do we have scientists who are willing to take the risk to be the first in a field? Or, a better question might be, do we have an environment that welcomes challenges and tolerates failures? Unarguably, in a result-oriented climate of the past ten years, the influence and status of the research of Chinese scientists had increased tremendously. However, to push innovation forward, China needs a more liberal academic environment for scientists to explore their own ideas.

It has taken decades for China to be at the forefront of scientific development, and it is now at an interesting stage, on the precipice of transforming itself from a successful follower to a bold leader. China’s rapid economic growth provides solid financial support for large-scale scientific projects, yet an ideological revolution is even more crucial to the role transformation. Luckily, the Chinese scientific community is becoming more diverse, and internationalized.

“Chinese scientists are now better connected with the international scientific community,” remarked Professor Chen. “It used to be people come to the U.S. and stay here, now more people are willing to return to China.” The returning scientists bring not only new technologies and opportunities for collaboration, but also a spirit of innovation. Their efforts may revolutionize the Chinese science system, and bring China one step closer to a leading position.

Chenyue Lyn Li is a student at the California Institute of Technology.