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Communications of the ACM

ACM Careers

Science vs. the State: A Family Saga at the Caltech of China


USTC graduate and his family

A USTC graduate and his family stand next to a stone plaque engraved with the message: "Study hard. Be red. Be expert!"

If Peking University is China's Harvard, and Tsinghua is China's MIT, the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) is known as "the Caltech of China" for its small size and intense focus on science and engineering. The university anthem ends with an exhortation: "Always learn from the people, and learn from the great leader Mao Zedong!"

The lyrics raise a question: Must scientific research be in service of one's country—or can the pursuit of knowledge transcend nationalism?

Generations of scientists at USTC have sought to answer this question. But if the university's rising trajectory in recent years is any indication, science in China thrives most when it serves the state. The story of USTC reveals the limits of science's ability to transcend China's authoritarian politics.

It is also the story of a family across three generations.

From Technology Review
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