In Shanghai in 2000, two institutes nearly half a century old merged to form the Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. It is one of the largest and best research centers in China. Geneticist Li Zaiping is elderly, genial, a smooth survivor. We met in a large conference room, with colleagues of Li’s, including a senior principal investigator studying insulin and the institute’s deputy director, Jing Naihe, younger, fluent, intense. Professor Jing had taken his PhD at one of the institute’s predecessors and had gone to Japan as a postdoc. Li relied on Jing to do most of the explaining.
Overall, the institute works in molecular, cell, and developmental biology and in biochemistry, but the four laboratory groups have different specializations and somewhat different affiliations. The State Key Laboratory of Molecular Biology, for example, concerned with RNA-protein interactions and regulation of gene expression, is largely funded and overseen by the Ministry of Science and Technology. (“Key laboratory” is a literal translation of the Chinese, meaning very important.) The other laboratory groups are creatures of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
At the time Li, Jing, and I met, the institute had 194 scientists, with 45 principal investigators. Of the principal investigators, a third were under 45, a third were between 45 and 60, and a third were above 60 – “but now that’s less,” Jing said. The old guys? My remark was less than tactful, and the laughter was uncomfortable. Jing jumped in, nodding at his senior colleagues: “They are, you can see, I think they are young! At least scientifically, right?” I said that in Beijing I had had a graduate student helping me, who when she learned my age said she’d call me “Ye ye,” which is Chinese children’s talk for “grandpa.” This time the laughter was unrestrained. Li Zaiping then said, soberly, “It’s difficult to get funding, for old people.”
“We have about one staff member for every two graduate students,” Jing said. “We have very few postdocs.” Why? “Because the good students, after they get the PhD, they go to U.S. to make their postdocs. Although now, from this year, that situation start to change.”