Yang Ke is executive vice president of the Peking University Health Science Center. (In English she prefers the Western order, given name first.) She is a woman of remarkable charm, perceptiveness, and subtlety, passionate and idealistic about good science: of all the scientists I met, Professor Ke expressed the most acute awareness of the difficulties and pressures Chinese scientists confront. Like Cao Ya, she worked in the United States at the National Cancer Institute, from 1985 to 1988. With her during our interview and at lunch was the center’s director of international cooperation, Dong Zhe. “In English, if I have problem, he will help me.”
Ke has run a laboratory ever since she returned from the United States in 1988; her current work addresses “mostly esophageal and gastric cancer, which has very high incidence in China.” Esophageal cancer has a proven though not simple genetic component. “We’re working on a high-incidence population in a relatively isolated rural area of Henan province.”
She was made vice president for research four years ago and stepped up to her present job two years later. The promotions came, though, “at the time I just got the real feeling of the science. Start harvesting results.” She misses that: “I’m less in the lab work, but I’m still struggling not to give up, because I think I am still useful to the students,” she said. “At least, I think my students are getting a good training.”
The picture of Chinese science presented to the world, she said, has emphasized very rapid development – “and the thing is, we are progressing in right direction. But we still have problems.” She said she would discuss these one by one. But first, “Another thing I should say is, my opinion is not official.” Indeed, she hoped her impulse to be frank would not be taken amiss.
“The first one. China has really made tremendous effort to enhance science and technology. Because government realized this is the way – at least, one of the way, one of the important way, to make the country strong,” she said. “But science is not like steel industry and automobile. It needs time.” Education in science has been financed heavily, “but not enough.” And education in the sciences must start very young.
Grants for research from the ministry, from the Natural Science Foundation, have been increased tenfold or more in the past decade. “But I think the universities should get more support in the basic research because of their advantage in the field and also because of the influence on the students. And I think basic research has strongest impact on the students in the way of scientific thinking – for which in our culture is relatively weak.”