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The institute is energetically recruiting from the scientific diaspora. Yet how do you persuade the postdocs in America to come back? The question provoked general discussion. Jing said, “We have to give them some funding money. And then give them freedom to do their research. Very important. Of course, they have to be of good quality.” The number and quality of the applications is improving markedly, he said. “We give them relatively good salaries, also. And now, in Shanghai, you know, house prices increasing tremendously. This makes recruitment even harder. So we also give them compensation on the house.”

But you say you give them freedom. “Well, this is a good question. First of all we give them funding, startup funds. Of course, his research has to be in the overview of our institute. But then he can choose what he wants to do. But he also has the decision to make, how he can get grants. So he has to adjust his research with the importance of related projects.”

Grants come from the 97-3 Program through the Natural Science Foundation, or through the Chinese Academy. For some time, the academy has also fostered recruitment through the Hundred Talents project. This was specifically designed to provide younger scientists of recognized potential the funding to work as principal investigators altogether independently of the institutional hierarchies.

How does a new group develop the scientific ethos, the sense of community? “Ah. All I can say…,” Jing paused. “This is mainly, how I can say, now our institute gradually is adopting a system like the U.S. And because most of the PIs are coming back from the U.S. Now the PI has almost very advanced freedom, how the money he can use, how the people he can hire, and the students he can pick up. All this.”

Yet he and his colleagues understood, Jing said, that the returning postdoc has no experience as a principal investigator. So they have recently joined up with a group of scientists at some seven associated laboratories, at different American universities, who come for short periods as visiting PIs. And they are trying to develop a way “to find mentors for new PIs. But we have not started yet.”

The unique character of Chinese science now and tomorrow can only be understood rightly in its integral relationship to the nation’s unique problems; in magnitude and urgency these are unprecedented in world history. It is by no means obvious that they can be adequately addressed. In the attempt, China is suffering unbearable strains: it is experiencing economic, nay, demographic, cultural, social transformation at blinding speed.

The sciences are part of that transformation, pulled between basic and applied, between international standards and domestic priorities, between modernity and tradition, between free, curiosity-driven inquiry and hard political realities. Meditating on the situation of Chinese science, Zhang Xianeng at the Ministry of Science and Technology said quietly and simply, “From my point of view, most of the real discovery were from curiosity research. But for this country, we need to solve our problems.” In the Chinese setting, to foster the essential ethos of scientific research is not easy. Progress is being made: Yang Ke is right about that. She is right, also, that it will take time, perhaps generations.

Horace Freeland Judson is the author of five books, including The Eighth Day of Creation, a history of molecular biology that was published in 1979 and is still in print.

Home page illustration by Brian Cronin.

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