Toeing official line will not produce world-class research, leading scholar says Mainland academics must stop toeing the official line if they want their research to be world class, an award-winning Hong Kong mathematician told a seminar this week. Yau Shing-tung, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Harvard professor, also called for mainland authorities to open up the system for assessing scholars' achievements. The Harvard chair professor of mathematics was speaking during a seminar on mainland higher education at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Professor Yau said the tendency to toe the official line was contrary to universities' roles as social leaders and advocates of original ideas. 'Universities should decide what they should do to serve the community on their own, rather than blindly follow other people's wishes. Failing that, they will be reduced to tools of the government, military people, large enterprises and money donors,' he said. He said that only with the integrity to pursue creative ideas could academics produce first-class research which had a global impact. 'It is interesting to see that most of the Nobel Prize-winning scientists made their discoveries independently. Government-overseen research projects that won the award were very few,' he said. Professor Yau received the Fields Medal in 1982 for his contributions to solving a number of mathematical problems, including the 'Calabi conjecture' in algebraic geometry. He is also director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences at Chinese University of Hong Kong, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He said mainland academics had been failing to work independently because regular funding was limited and they needed to rely on short-term research funds which were scrutinised by bureaucrats. 'The authority is where your money comes from. The academics have no choice but to listen to officials and please them,' Professor Yau told an audience of 200. He said the amount earmarked for elite mainland universities was not even up to one-tenth of that of their counterparts in the US. 'That is why mainland academics are forced to flatter officials for fear that their funds will not be renewed,' Professor Yau said. Another issue was the assessment system for scholars, which was crucial for deciding whether to grant research funds. Professor Yau said the assessment of a thesis was largely based on its quantity and quality was overlooked. Committees in charge of the assessments mostly consisted of scholars and bureaucrats within the mainland and lacked international experts. 'The authority often refuses to let foreign people assess home academics. Their pretext is that foreign people do not know much about what is happening in China.' The real reason, he said, was the fear of foreign academics gaining knowledge of mainland research and bureaucrats losing power over funding. Professor Yau said there needed to be a more open assessment system to improve fairness. 'If a panel at Harvard assessing an important academic topic knows that there is a top specialist on the topic from Africa, it will not hesitate to seek his advice,' he said. 'This is something the mainland needs to learn. Knowledge has no boundaries.' Professor Yau said that historically, there was a tradition in China of official control over academics - and it remained to this day. 'It can be traced back to the Qin dynasty. Qin Shi Huang [the first emperor] unified China and then imposed strict control on intellectuals. He ordered the burning of scripts and burying of scholars alive.' A recent example was the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and 1970s which saw widespread persecution of intellects across the country. 'After the Cultural Revolution, academics felt that their personal safety was at risk. They had fears and became reluctant to start any creative projects,' he said. 'Many would-be first-class projects were aborted. 'This fear still remains in many parents who eventually send their children to foreign universities. Many of them are the country's best young talents.'