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Biomedicine

The Great Chinese Experiment

China is betting its economic health on becoming a world leader in the sciences. But will it succeed?

China is an economic catastrophe waiting to happen. China is poised to become the world’s largest economy by 2025. Both these statements are true. They provide the context we must understand in order to evaluate rightly what the Chinese are attempting to do in the sciences.

When Deng Xiaoping came to power in the early 1980s, China was a Third World country, its vast population mired in poverty, trapped by massive economic failures and structural rigidities. Deng decreed that China must have the benefits of capitalist modes of investment and competition. He declared, also, that the foundation of economic and so of national greatness is science and technology.

A quarter-century later, the dynamism of the Chinese economy is without precedent – steel, automobiles, toys, textiles, household appliances, on and on. Official statistics put the year-on-year growth of gross domestic product at 7.5 percent in 2001, 8.3 percent in 2002, 9.3 percent in 2003, 9.5 percent in 2004. Some Western economists think the real rates have been significantly higher. In any case, agreement is general that China’s economy will soon outstrip that of the United States.

Yet its problems are on the same colossal scale. China has 1.3 billion people, predicted to peak at 1.4 billion in 2025 – and 900 million are still rural and extremely poor. Corruption is widespread in provincial governments, in state-owned industries, within the Communist Party. The banking system is reported close to collapse. Social discontent is erupting: the government has admitted to tens of thousands of protests a year.

Poverty is not confined to the countryside. In the main streets and glossy shopping malls of Beijing in summer, slim young women are stepping out in gauzy short dresses and frivolous shoes, but a block or two away are ancient alleyways – in Beijing called hutong – lined with low crumbling buildings, rows of minute cavelike shops open to the street with no lights lit, middle-aged and older men and women sitting idle, smoking, sullen on the stoops.

Pollution is pervasive, environmental degradation devastating. Smog in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities reduces visibility most summer days to less than half a mile: when you drive along one of the elevated highways that cut through Shanghai, office and apartment towers emerge spectrally from the haze and then dissolve away. Seventy-five percent of China’s lakes are said to be polluted; the lower reaches of major rivers run dry many days of the year.

The problem most publicized is energy. China is already second only to the United States in energy use. Domestic oil or natural-gas supplies are negligible. China has abundant coal, of which it is the largest global consumer, mining and burning a quarter of the world’s yearly output – at disastrous cost, some 6,000 miners killed underground in 2004 alone.

Even sophisticated and knowledgeable Westerners bring ideological preconceptions to their view of China. The most common is that economic growth requires laissez-faire capitalism, ideally on the Anglo-American model – and will inevitably lead to democratic reforms. But Chinese capitalism is not like, and will not necessarily approach, the Western model. It is under state control – often erratic, to be sure, yet always threatening. The steel industry, the automotive industry, and the others were created from the top down. Goals are still set from on high, in five-year plans, and in detail.

The men at the top are a new generation, intelligent, determined, relatively young. No question that they have learned from history – but not the lessons Western observers would like them to learn. Hu Jintao is paramount leader. He and his colleagues have attacked what they call “neoliberalism,” specifically, laissez-faire policies. They admit no correlation between economic growth and any flowering of democracy. What had looked like a gradual relaxation of controls over press and television reporting has been reversed, sharply and increasingly.

All this is the barest sketch of the economic dynamism and the economic, environmental, and political constraints that shape Chinese science today. Following Deng, the Chinese government has been investing heavily to bring the sciences up to Western standards of quality, originality, and productivity. Roy Schwarz is a seasoned observer. Since 1997, he has been president of the China Medical Board of New York, which supports medical education and research in China. Schwarz has visited China four dozen times, for a total of a year and a half in-country. “In my cadre of 13 institutions, I support probably six out of the top eight medical schools,” he said in a telephone interview. “Plus, I’ve funded probably, oh, 150 projects – some straight science, some are training programs for science, some are curriculum-related to science.”

The Chinese, he said, are doing everything they can to promote science. “I mean science across the board. From the space science that they’ve got going to the chemical and physical sciences, but especially biological sciences and medicine.”

An early step was radical restructuring. Following the Soviet model, China in 1952 and in years following had set up a large number of separate single-specialty universities and schools. But in the summer of 1998, Jiang Zemin, then president of China, and Zhu Rongji, prime minister, brought representatives of prominent American universities to Beijing. The Chinese leaders learned that where their educational institutions were specialized, American universities are comprehensive. Their response, Schwarz said, was to adopt the American model.

The result has been a large number of shotgun mergers. For example, the city of Hangzhou had four unidisciplinary universities, including one agricultural and one medical. In 1998, these were abruptly amalgamated into one, Zhejiang University. Zhejiang now has some 43,000 students, including 5,500 PhD candidates.

“Their universities have two structures of authority in them,” Schwarz said. “The apparent one to Westerners is the president and the vice presidents and the deans. The one that’s not apparent is the party secretary, vice secretaries – for every level on the academic side, you have one on the party side.” Like the Red Army in the Soviet Union long ago? “Yeah, exactly right. And the latter is more powerful than the former – or it has been up to this point. But that’s rapidly shifting.”

(Perhaps. But I noticed the all-but-universal practice that a Chinese scientist interviewed would have at least one other person present – a colleague, a student, someone supposedly to help with translation, often somebody involved with international relations. Nathan Sivin, the foremost living authority on the history of Chinese science, enlightened me in an e-mail message: “People from the foreign affairs office of a work unit are always handlers and reporters to the Public Security Bureau. In some organizations they are quite antsy, and in others supportive of the intellectuals they work with – so long as something does not threaten to draw trouble down on their own heads.”)

Leading medical schools were already, like those in the United States, biological research institutes, although their work was largely unknown in the West. Now they were folded into universities. “In any other culture it couldn’t have happened,” Schwarz said. “But I think now the medical faculties are seeing the value of being part of a bigger whole. And I’ve watched the education of nonmedical presidents and party secretaries occur, as they try to understand this rare beast called a medical center.”

Reputedly the best of these is at Peking University, which in 2000 absorbed Beijing Medical University and renamed it the Peking University Health Science Center. Peking University’s main campus is in a near suburb west of Beijing; the Health Science Center is several miles away. Such dispersal is an obvious consequence of the merger process. Zhejiang University has six campuses.

That dispersal may not last. Throughout the Chinese university system, modernization is intense. “They’re all building these gigantic new campuses,” Schwarz said. “I’ve visited five now.” Unifying campuses, building new facilities, enforces integration. To head off faculty and administrative resistance to change, an extra $245 million was allocated to Peking University over the three years after the merger, according to Schwarz; the first of it was earmarked for the construction of world-class laboratories and acquisition of the best equipment. Laboratories I saw at nine different research institutions were high gloss.

The scope and areas of concentration of Chinese science have been laid down in greatest detail in a series of national directives. The most recent overarching directive is called the National Basic Research Program. Early in 1997, the Ministry of Science and Technology assembled an advisory committee of senior scientists and asked them what China had to do to achieve international competitiveness in the sciences while at the same time addressing its most acute domestic problems. The committee presented its recommendations in March – hence the “97-3 Program” for short – and in June they were approved at the ministerial level and above.

The language of the program’s promotional materials can be Marxist-triumphalist: one English translation asserts that “we will create an excellent scientific research environment, intensively support a group of outstanding scientific research teams, conduct important innovation research, and scale the peak of the world’s science, thus promoting the magnificent development of the China’s basic research and the hi-tech industries.” The details, though, are reasoned, practical, and in dead earnest.

Funding is, of course, the tool for directing and controlling science and scientists. To be sure, a number of Western corporations have set up facilities for technological research in China. Both IBM and Microsoft have laboratories in Beijing; Microsoft’s is reputed to be the most consistently innovative in the corporation.

The China Medical Board puts $10 million a year into medical education and research. In 2004, the Institut Pasteur, France’s nongovernmental research institution, began working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the municipal government of Shanghai to set up and staff an institute whose research focuses on the molecular biology of infectious diseases.

Two of the richest men in Hong Kong are giving money to certain specialized programs. These activities, though small in scale, have independence and visibility and so a degree of influence on the evolving culture of science in China. Otherwise, virtually all the money for science comes, through various conduits, from the government.

Zhang Xianeng is director general for basic research at the Ministry of Science and Technology. We met during a break in an all-day governmental conference held at the Fragrant Mountain Hotel – an attractive, modern quasi-resort two hours out of Beijing on the lower slopes of the hills from which it gets its name. Zhang is a biochemist. He is lean, in his early 50s but looking ten years younger, a reflective man who speaks excellent English.

“In China we have three major sources for research,” Zhang said. Their aims differ. “One is from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. This foundation supports basic research driven by curiosity of the scientists themselves. The Ministry of Science and Technology is another funding source, supporting national-demand research,” which is to say, research planned by the government to meet its urgent priorities. “We call this strategic research.” He went on, “The ministry is a government agency. We not only support basic research. We also support applied research.”

Throughout the system, distinguishing basic from applied is complex. “The Natural Science Foundation had a budget last year” – 2004 – “of about two billion yuan,” Zhang said. At the then pegged rate of 8.28 yuan to the dollar, that was roughly a quarter-billion dollars. Comparisons are awkward, though, because the cost of research is so much lower in China than in the United States. “From our ministry,” said Zhang, “10 billion” – U.S.$1.2 billion, or about a dollar per Chinese citizen. “But of the ministry’s budget, about 10 percent goes to basic research. That’s about half what the Natural Science Foundation gets.”

The committee that recommended the 97-3 Program still functions to propose priorities for the ministry’s approval. Even the “curiosity-driven” research supported by the Natural Science Foundation must fall within the categories of the program, conforming to the five-year plans of the research organizations. Architects of the program acknowledge, at least in principle, the need to let scientists shape their own research. In tension with that, though, they have devised a system of formal controls. Sixty-one “disciplinary evaluation panels” have been set up, with 753 experts. Institutions submit proposals by March 31. Each of these is vetted by one of the foundation’s seven scientific departments, which range from mathematical and physical through chemical, life, and earth to engineering, information, and management sciences.

Next step is peer review, done by correspondence and drawing on a pool of more than 20,000 reviewers; whether such reviewing is rigorous and free from bias must be in question (as is also true in the West). The results are analyzed and projects sent up to the evaluation panels, which submit surviving projects to an annual Natural Science Foundation meeting. Grants are for five years, and progress is reviewed after the first two – a system called “2+3” – to avoid the problem that once a project has won funding, the research team sits back and “the thinking becomes ossified,” said Zhang.

“The third source of support, of course, is CAS, the Chinese Academy of Sciences,” Zhang said. The nation’s top scientists are academicians, and in that respect the Chinese academy is like the National Academy of Sciences in the United States or Britain’s Royal Society; but it much more resembles the Max Planck Society in Germany, because it, too, directly runs a host of institutes, the most important in centers such as Beijing or Shanghai, with others scattered across the country.

These at one time numbered upwards of 130; but here, too, consolidations have been ordered. Many of those remaining have been shrunk through forced retirements, leaving more adequate support for those scientists who remain – and who can meet the pressure to raise additional funds outside. “CAS is bombarded for its institutes,” Zhang said. “But they have very big freedom. Either curiosity-driven research” – about 40 percent of their budget – “or the strategic basic research.”

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.”

Behold the contrast. Harmony, consensus, respect for authority and for the views of elders: for thousands of years, this set of attitudes, Confucian for short (but a lot that was conventional before his time gets blamed on Confucius), has ruled the behavior of individual Chinese. At issue today is the power of a hierarchy based first on seniority and next on connections.

Such a hierarchy is said still to govern much of the teaching of science in China; it lurks in laboratory relations. Most notoriously, it led to the misidentification in 2003 of the cause of the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS. The first cases showed up in southern China late in 2002; the disease spread to Beijing and other cities and threatened to go global. In February 2003, a senior scientist in Beijing announced that he had found the cause, the bacterium Chlamydia. A junior in his laboratory knew that this was mistaken, for he had isolated the true cause. Out of respect, or fear, he said nothing.

This is an extreme but not an isolated example. I was warned of the problem repeatedly. Gerald Lazarus is dean emeritus of the medical school of the University of California, Davis, and now a professor at the Johns Hopkins medical school. His wife, Audrey Jakubowski, is a chemist. They lived in Beijing for three years, 1999 to 2001. He was a visiting professor at Peking Union Medical College and Hospital.

For much of that time, she worked with an English-language scientific journal, the Chinese Medical Journal, trying to improve the English of the papers it published and to establish standards for review of manuscripts. Lazarus spoke of intellectual rigidities he encountered among faculty and students, caused, he thought, by deference to the views of elder colleagues. Jakubowski was more specific. The seniority system – she called it Confucian – could be crippling to peer review, she said, for to turn down a paper submitted by a senior person would be an act of disrespect.

The Chinese (and certain other Asian nations, of course) are notorious for pirating brand-name merchandise: copyright and trademark protection seem to have no meaning. Plagiarism is said to be flagrant in the sciences, too. American scientists and scholars who work with Chinese graduate students or postdoctoral fellows are surprised to learn they must teach new arrivals not to borrow others’ work without acknowledgement – and the penalties for those who get caught.

“The Chinese have a real problem with respect for intellectual property. They seem to have selective amnesia,” Roy Schwarz said. Martha Hill, dean of Johns Hopkins’s School of Nursing, said the same: “They come here, or many do, with no awareness at all of the necessity to give attribution, full attribution, for any material taken from others’ work.” Another division of Hopkins recently expelled a Chinese graduate student for plagiarism. Sivin noted that an exposé of plagiarism as a general problem published in China got its senior Chinese author into much trouble.

Yet Western preconceptions get in the way of understanding and effective response. Duplicating the latest Rolling Stones album, putting a counterfeit designer label on a pair of jeans – such acts are unembarrassed thievery. Plagiarism in the sciences is not like that. Classically, in the West, science is held to be communal: methods are shared, results once published are for the use of all. In that world, priority is the one form of ownership, making the need for attribution absolute. Unpublished data may be a target for theft, but a risky one.

What’s really worth stealing are ideas, above all the knowledge that Ah ha, here is something new and the way to get it. This kind of theft is the greatest temptation and the hardest to detect. It occurs; it can be prevented only by that strongly developed scientific culture, the sense of community – that psychologically internalized ethos of science.

The skeptic might suppose that what happens in China is no different from what one sees in many Western laboratories, where the boss appropriates and publishes under his or her name the work of subordinates. But the Chinese tradition is fundamentally different. Simply put, scholars at all levels have always been expected to incorporate the work of others into their own. In older times, principled scholars acknowledged their borrowings, but that remained optional (as in the pre-19th-century West). The attitude goes back many centuries; today it seems still strongly internalized.

In recent years, that classical Western ideal of the communality of science has been roiled, particularly in the biological sciences, by the lure of profits through patents. Many express outrage at the secrecy that preparing a patent application imposes and contempt for the excesses that have led, say, to the patenting of individual snippets of genomes. Rightly viewed, though, a patent is a form of publication and removes the need for secrecy, preserving priority yet restoring communality.

Here is a curious convergence. At some point in every conversation I had with scientists in China, I raised the problem of plagiarism. The response was always the same, and on first impression it seems unexpected – not evasive, exactly, but indirect. On reflection, it begins to look like acknowledging the problem, sure, but moving on to the ways, in the Chinese setting, that young scientists in the making might be brought to think differently, to see the benefits of taking in the Western norms.

So institute directors and principal investigators say they teach that intellectual property means, in the first place, patents. Young Chinese scientists are urged to consider which of their results are patentable and to apply. Suddenly, out of the ruck of ideas, methods, data, discoveries that were loosely thought held in common, individual ownership emerges in a most hard-edged form.

Secondly, Chinese scientists are urged, commanded, to prepare their work and write it up to be published in top Western peer-reviewed journals. Nature, Science, Cell are targeted. Such publication is heavily emphasized in the 97-3 Program, and an individual laboratory’s success in international journals is crucial at 2+3 time. National prestige is an important, overt motive here. The effect on individual laboratories and scientists, though, is to force them to absorb Western standards of quality, to live them, to learn to live by them. It is, in short, a process of acculturation.

In the decades since Deng Xiaoping declared science and technology to be of crucial importance, thousands of Chinese trained in the sciences have gone abroad as graduate students or, more usually, as postdocs. Most have gone to the United States, some to Europe. Many have stayed on, taking research jobs; some have returned. To China, they represent an immense and invaluable resource – for their particular skills and specialties but even more for their Westernized attitudes, their absorption of the ethos of modern science. The Chinese government has recognized their potential and is urgently trying to induce more to return.

Here are three Chinese scientists. Each of them did postdoctoral work abroad, then returned. Each is at the middle level of the profession, leading a laboratory, working intensively with a relatively small group. They are representative of others I met as well.

In Changsha, capital of Hunan province, in south-central China, where the summers and the food are blazing, the Central South University was formed in 2000 by merger of a university of technology, a medical university, and, of all things, the Changsha Railway University. The medical component is now the Xiangya School of Medicine. Cao Ya (her family name is pronounced Tsow) is deputy dean and director of the medical school. She has an MD and a PhD and spent five years in the United States at the National Cancer Institute, outside of Washington.

She is also a deputy mayor of Changsha. A stocky woman, she is direct, informed, briskly intelligent, with a sense of humor, and formidably well prepared. We talked at an elaborate dinner with half a dozen of her colleagues; we met the next morning in her office with a graduate student attending to help with translation.

“The major scientific program running right now in China is this one, called 97-3 Program,” Professor Cao said. “A major huge program to catch up with the scientific development of the whole world. Started in 1997, March. This program is for basic research. According to the needs of the nation.” Technological applications? Or basic science? “Both,” she said with a sharp nod. The goal is split in two? “Yes,” she said. “I think that the major scientific program is the whole-world program. Not just for China. The second is the urgent requirement for our country’s social and economic development.”

The 97-3 Program concentrates research in six areas, agricultural biotechnology, energy, informatics, natural resources and the environment, population and health, and materials science. Cao’s own concern is with population and health. In this area the research is divided into 20 fields. She took me through them with the aid of a 33-page position paper she had put together in anticipation of my visit. The list is diverse, the projects ambitious. Yet even the most basic research – in stem cells, for example – has been defined in terms of immediate applications.

Her own working week is half city government, half research. “In particular we’d like to know how the Epstein-Barr virus” – which can cause cancer – “works with the host cells.” The questions her group is asking would not be out of place at the National Cancer Institute. Her laboratory has about 20 persons, mostly PhD candidates, with five technicians. Her entire Cancer Research Institute has six laboratories, 50 faculty, some 100 students. Six faculty members are among those Chinese scientists who have returned from abroad. The center is part of the medical school.

“For my lab, I think it is okay. I think we do a very good job,” she said. “And also, in my lab we have very good teamwork. They can share the information, share the idea, exchange the information, the discussion.” She was deeply influenced by her time at the National Cancer Institute. Her boss in the medical school is a scientist: “He is academy member, 74 years old.” Is automatic respect for elders a problem? “No.” It doesn’t get in the way of the science? I rephrased the question, twice. Each time she sat mum, gave no answer.

I asked what she saw as the problems. “I think the most important big point is, we should publish more our work in the international journals. So the whole world get the chance to know more what are we doing in China. The major problem is a language problem. Editor always say the English is not native. And they say, you need some native person to help you improve the quality of the paper.” She gave me a bibliography of all the biology papers by scientists in China published between 2000 and the summer of 2005 in Science, Nature, and Cell. They numbered 36. Most listed large numbers of coauthors, the largest, 30. Of her own laboratory, she said, “This year we try to publish some good papers in JBC and the PNAS,” the Journal of Biological Chemistry and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.

Any more? “Yes. I think we should give up all the low-level repeat work. It doesn’t make any sense. It just make more trash!”

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.”

Secondly, “For the technology development…for example, if we want a satellite, it can be organized by the government,” she said. “But the problem is, they do emphasize basic science, but in an organizing way” – from the top down – “instead of creating it from the science level. Although a lot of scientists are more and more influential, people still think that we can do it effectively the way as they do it in technical development. That’s a problem people have: they cannot wait. They expect your results, second day. They tell scientists, ‘You got the money. And you organize a team! Make it big! And the Nobel Prize, tomorrow!’ That way!”

Yet “of course, it works, as well, because good researchers get more grant in this way. And look at the progress we are making. Now we have some people really understand the science. And they know the rule of the game. And they are serious about their work. But I think in the long term, scientists in basic science should be given more freedom and longer time in the direction and production.

“So I have to jump to the third question. In this society, now, and in the culture, I think Chinese people now emphasize the technology more than science. From beginning, from long time ago in our history, we have the tradition of research for application. That’s our culture. For five thousand years.

“Furthermore, in our society – because it’s very rapidly developing, economically – the trend of the social system causes a turmoil of thinking. In terms of belief. People are more materialist,” she said. “But for the basic science, people have to have very quiet minds. Clear. And focused. And….” Searching for a term, she turned to Dong Zhe. He pursed his lips, then said, “Tolerate the hard work.” And the uncertainty. She picked up the exchange: “But the first thing is to be very interested. Curious. Very curious. And then tolerate the loneliness. For a long time. And maybe without any answer.”

But, I said, it’s not just the individual. “The group,” she said. “The collaboration. That’s another problem. Difficult. First thing is, because of all these problems, everybody want them to be successful. And everybody think themselves is most important. That is the trend in our society. The second thing is, again, cultural. Chinese people don’t want to say negative things at beginning. They don’t want to make clear how to divide benefit” – credit – “at beginning. So if it becomes very successful, then people quarrel.”

Dong Zhe intervened. “What Professor Ke is saying, it is a Chinese cultural attribute that you want to show your politeness; but on the other hand, you don’t state your terms. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. But when you are going to harvest your fruits, then the problem comes up. Everyone want to claim they are contributor.”

This is an aspect of Chinese culture that is thousands of years old, I said. Both murmured agreement. Ke said, “People respect scientific thinking. But they don’t really understand it – most of them, in our culture. I noticed, because I was exposed to Western culture, I noticed in our school – this is a famous medical school – most teachers are teaching the students just according to the book.”

Dong Zhe: “She is saying that the Chinese culture doesn’t encourage you to have questions in your mind but asks you to follow what the master mind says.”

Yang Ke: “Mm-hm. But that starts changing. Because some Chinese understand, what is really – how they can do the science. But still, if you must change the whole country’s thinking, it takes a long time.” She turned to Dong again, with a burst of rapid Chinese.

He considered for a moment, then said, “The Chinese culture has a long history. So it must have some truth and excellency. However, if we are facing the development of new scientists, it seems that we have to break away from the tradition a little bit. Learn to be sharp and frank.”

How? “It will take time.” Ke said. “It is globalization which will make the advantages of Chinese and Western culture integrated. Our well-educated, very promising young people must learn from outside also. If they want to be a scientist.” So they go abroad and then come back? “Right.” But when they come back, what protects them from the elders? “If we have more and more people coming back. For example, my students go out and come back, they shouldn’t have any problem to deal with me.”

Dong explained, “I think what Professor Ke is saying, that because of this globalization there is interchange of cultures. So many key research people have been trained abroad.” What do they come back to? “If it is one single person, you can’t change the situation, but if when they are coming back in a group they become a force.” Ke nodded, “Mm-hm.” Dong went on, “And they bring in the new ideas. And then they practice all the behaviors of the scientist, beginning a change.” Beginning to form a scientific cadre, I said – because the ethos must spread to students and technicians, too.

“Right, right,” she said. “So that needs generations. That needs generations. I don’t think one generation – “

“Maybe a few generations,” Dong Zhe said.

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.”

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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