Keep Disseminating and Robust: STS at Tsinghua University

Volume 15, Issue 2

EASTS first reported the decision to dissolve the STS Institute at Tsinghua University, China, in our issue that covered fresh scholarship about science in the Mao era (vol. 13, no. 3). Its editor’s note ran: “We believe that our current issue demonstrates the importance of history in doing East Asian STS; we also want to use this issue to support our colleagues at Tsinghua University. Just as with China studies, a clear disciplinary line cannot be drawn for STS. May they keep their research spirits high after their relocation, making this an opportunity for STS to be done well and to shine brightly.” Three years on, we believe this is a good time to review STS in China via Tsinghua University’s STS Institute and the changes made to relocate its faculty since dissolution. Our editor Wei Hong, also a member of the STS program at Tsinghua University, has kindly written a report for us. With it we wish our Chinese STS colleagues well, and may they remain as productive and innovative as ever.

EASTS Editorial Office

Established in 1985, The Institute of Science, Technology and Society at Tsinghua University was the first of its kind in China. Its history can be traced back to 1978, when it began as a teaching and research division of Dialectics of Nature (自然辩证法). The institute was closed in the summer of 2018, after celebrating its fortieth anniversary. Sudden as the decision sounded to our colleagues worldwide, it was in fact the second of two blows to the institute.

The crisis started in 2011, when Dialectics of Nature was downgraded from a required course for all Master’s students to a selective one. In addition, the teaching load of the course was reduced from 48 hours to 18 hours. With its origins in Friedrich Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, the course was devised to offer philosophical training on science and technology to graduate students majoring in science, engineering, agriculture, or medicine. It provided guaranteed teaching posts across China for those philosophers and historians of science and technology who in due course would be most likely to be attracted to STS. Based on the previous teaching load, the STS Institute at Tsinghua University had required at least 12 faculty members, and even demanded 16 at its peak. When the course lost its status in graduate education, the legitimacy of maintaining an independent institute was weakened.

STS is, besides, not a formal discipline approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education. Since 2016, national resources related to teaching and research have been distributed according to rankings in disciplines rather than universities. In response to that reform, many universities canceled their weaker disciplines or inter-disciplinary units to strengthen their stronger disciplines. Against this backdrop, dividing the STS Institute and merging its faculty members into the formal discipline to which they belonged became the rational choice.

Two faculty members (Li Liu 刘立 and Guangling Xiao 肖广岭) left for the School of Marxism, where the course of Dialectics of Nature is administered, before the Institute was closed. The other thirteen were each invited to choose the department to which they wanted to transfer. Eight of them (Tong Wu 吴彤, Jian Yang 杨舰, Bing Liu 刘兵, Wei Wang 王巍, Ou Bao 鲍鸥, Yi Lei 雷毅, Jingsong Jiang 蒋劲松, and Chengwei Wang 王程韡) chose to go to the Department of the History of Science in the School of Humanities, which gained approval on 16 May 2017, and was established on 30 June 2017. Five stayed in the School of Social Sciences, of whom four (Zhengfeng Li 李正风, Chenggang Zhang 张成岗, Lianghua Gao 高亮华, and Wei Hong 洪伟) went to the Department of Sociology, and one, Jinxi Wu 吴金希, went to the Institute of Economics. The Center of Science, Technology and Society was retained, to maintain a virtual STS community on campus. Our students were also allowed to transfer to the school of their choice. Most of them preferred to stay affiliated with the School of Social Sciences. In the case of students registered in 2019 and before, we meet regularly to deal with their qualifying exams, proposal defenses, and thesis defenses as originally planned.

Those colleagues who moved to the Department of the History of Science were made very welcome by its students. The broad scope of their research and their engagement with contemporary social issues continue to attract young scholars to the field of STS. In 2019, Jian Yang had two papers published in international journals: “Compatible Humanists: Yuen Ren Chao Meets George Sarton” in Isis, and “When overseas education meets a changing local context: the role of Tokyo Higher Technical School in the industrial modernization of China in the early twentieth century” in History of Education. Two of our colleagues retired recently–Tong Wu in 2019 and Ou Bao in 2020. Their lifelong achievements in philosophy and history of science and technology won high appreciation from their colleagues and students.

Mainly comprising philosophers and historians, the Chinese STS community has long been striving to understand and apply the sociological approach to conducting research. To this end, the Tsinghua STS Institute initiated a collaboration with the Department of Sociology in 2014, offering Master’s degrees and PhDs in sociology. In our sociological concentration, we incorporated a number of relevant courses into the teaching curriculum. By encouraging our students to carry out empirical research, we anticipated that we would foster indigenous STS research in China. We also started a regular panel on Sociology of Science at the Annual Sociological Meeting in 2013 and turned it into a formal committee in 2015, with Zhengfeng Li as founding chair and Wei Hong as chief secretary. Based on this groundwork, our colleagues who went to the Department of Sociology made a smooth transition. We maintain an STS concentration under the discipline of sociology to continue our work. Our new colleagues have also warmly invited us to collaborate in building research consortia on STS, Social Network Analysis, and Computational Social Sciences.

During the 2021 Chinese New Year, Zhengfeng Li was invited to give a talk entitled “Development of STS: Historical Retrospect and Future Prospects” to a gathering of prominent northern sociologists, calling for recognition of the significance of STS. At the invitation of the Tsinghua Sociological Review, Wei Hong served as guest editor for a recent special issue on STS, with topics including artificial intelligence, sound studies, lay epidemiology, a review of “Talking STS,” and a reflection on co-production theory. Persevering in our efforts, we are introducing STS perspectives to the sociology community, and integrating sociological methodology into our STS research.

For generations, the Tsinghua STS Institute was committed to promoting STS as a formal discipline in China. With the closure of the Institute, that ambition has faded. However, after blending into the disciplines we have chosen, new opportunities are emerging as well as challenges. Almost three years after the closure, we are looking forward to continuing our adventure and to exploring a new route for STS that is adapted to Chinese academia. Collaborating with Science Press since 2010, our previous director Guoping Zen 曾国屏 initiated a book series entitled “Understanding Science” (理解科学文丛). A dozen books have now been published. Continuing that initiative, we have further books coming out this year, including a collection of publications representative of our faculty members as a memorial to our beloved STS Institute. Oh and by the way, we still gather together every New Year to celebrate the occasion, just as we always did!

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