One grave doubt had been on my mind since I first considered going to China, and the brute facts of the organization of the sciences there brought it to the fore. Is it possible to build a modern scientific establishment, doing important and original work to world standard, by ordering it from the top down, bringing it into being like a steel or automobile or electronics industry?
Good science in our era is done in groups within groupings, from the individual laboratory to the research institution to the national network with its professional associations and controls and rewards, multiple levels of scientists judging scientists, to the world scientific community, integrated however loosely by shared attitudes and standards. New ideas, discoveries, grow from the bottom up.
The culture of science, the ethos of science, must be rooted in the basic unit, the individual laboratory. From the laboratory’s leader – called in China, as in the United States, the principal investigator, or PI – through senior colleagues down to postdocs, graduate students, and laboratory technicians, the group fosters and enforces the ethos of science. This is where the young scientist accepts the discipline, internalizes it, makes it a part of his or her personality. Or does not – for there are sick institutions in Western science, laboratories and larger institutions where the ethos falters.
The deep question for China, then, is how to plant and cultivate the discipline of science, the ethos. I raised this question with every scientist I talked to. Two problems demonstrate the difficulties – the Confucian problem and the plagiarism problem. These are not oddities or incidental aberrations. They are rooted, ingrained, internalized.
Howard Temin was an American molecular geneticist, who shared in a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for the discovery of the enzyme reverse transcriptase. He was a man of iron rectitude who had thought long about styles of doing science. In a conversation in March 1993, he told me, “One of the great strengths of American science…is that even the most senior professor, if challenged by the lowliest technician or graduate student, is required to treat them seriously and to consider their criticisms. It is one of the most fundamental aspects of science in America.”