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CommentInsight & Opinion

For China, Nobel Prize in science is still a big leap away

Cong Cao says the obstacles that stand in the way of a Chinese national winning a Nobel Prize in the sciences are only too real, notwithstanding Beijing's dream of glory

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 October, 2013, 7:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 2:32am

For one week every October, a serious bout of anxiety grips China. But it is not purely down to nervousness over which prominent dissident is in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989 and Liu Xiaobo in 2010.

Rather, it reflects the Chinese government's unsated craving for a home-grown scientist to win a Nobel science prize; cast-iron proof of technological power to match its economic might and a reassertion of its capacity for innovation, first demonstrated by the so-called "Four Great Inventions" of ancient China: the compass, printing, gunpowder and papermaking.

This year, though, the trophy cabinet again lies empty. China has resorted to celebration by association. One of the Nobel Prize winners for medicine, announced last week, is Thomas Südhof, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University School of Medicine and husband to Chen Lu, a high-profile Chinese neuroscientist. The University of Science and Technology of China, Chen's alma mater, enthusiasti-cally cheered a Chinese son-in-law and, in this way, China is at least related to the honour.

It is a familiar tactic. In 2008, an excitable Chinese media celebrated the chemistry prize of Roger Y. Tsien, an American citizen born in the US but also a nephew of Qian Xuesen, known as the "father" of China's space programme.

Ethnic Chinese do feature among China's Nobel laureates for science. But the glaring fact is that not one is a product of the education system of Communist Party-led China.

Winners of the physics prize in 1957, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee held passports issued by the Kuomintang government, which was overthrown by the Communist Party in 1949. They both attended the National Southwestern Associated University, an institution formed during the second world war by an amalgamation of Peking, Tsinghua and Nankai universities in Kunming , Yunnan province, before moving to the US.

Samuel Chao Chung Ting (physics, 1976), Yuan Tseh Lee (chemistry, 1986), Daniel Chee Tsui (physics, 1998) and Charles K. Kao (physics, 2009) all moved to either the US or Britain after completing their high school, or even their undergraduate and part of their postgraduate education, in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Steven Chu (physics, 1997), like Roger Tsien, is a product of the American education system.

Crucially, all established themselves in the US or Britain, where they found greater freedom to choose research projects, a rich academic atmosphere and sophisticated lab facilities.

In recent years, Chen Ning Yang has repeatedly lamented the possibility that mainland China will not receive a Nobel Prize in science for 20 years. In the week leading up to this year's prize announcements, Huang Wei, president of Nanjing University of Technology, confidently predicted that winning Nobel Prizes in sciences would be standard practice for Chinese in 10 years.

Both crystal balls are clouded by optimism. At this rate, even 20 years is unlikely. None of China's recent scientific feats have come close to prize-winning status and there is little of note on the horizon.

Fifteen years ago, some of China's leading scientists told me that ethnic Chinese scientists born on the mainland, who left for the West soon after Deng Xiaoping ushered in the open-door policy, would soon be winning Nobel Prizes in science. If this did happen, they said, it would represent a humiliation; evidence of the benefits of abandoning China to advance a career overseas and fulfil one's true potential.

This vision has yet to come to fruition. Professor Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has offered up some bold reasoning. He argued that no matter where you study - Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge - you have no chance of winning a Nobel Prize for science if you spend your first 12 years in a Chinese school: your individuality, curiosity, imagination and creativity will simply have been destroyed by the Chinese education system.

It is also a system that binds students to their mentors. A mentor is an authority figure as formidable as a strict father, and to challenge him is unacceptable. This loyalty discourages criticism of seniors and has proved to be a major handicap.

Furthermore, mainland Chinese scientists have not had time to establish a tradition of research excellence and generate Nobel Prize-winning momentum. Many Nobel laureates teach and nurture students who go on to become laureates themselves. Südhof used to study with two Nobel laureates in physiology/medicine.

The past generation of Chinese scientists, including some who studied with laureates abroad, may well have turned out a new crop of scientists had they not been burdened by domestic political traumas stretching from the 1930s to the 1970s. Only in the past 35 years have Chinese scientists been able to focus their whole attention on research. It will take time for their efforts to produce world-class scientific achievements.

Another obstacle is the paucity of excellent Chinese scientists; they are so few in number that they are likely to be transferred from research to administrative posts.

Confucian doctrine teaches that "a good scholar will make an official" and some of the best scientists, knowing that they can in this way secure scarce resources, are more than willing to leave their labs. The downside comes when they become buried in administrative tasks.

The lack of dynamism in the research environment discourages Chinese scientists who have been successful abroad from returning home. Chen Ning Yang has said that he probably would not have won the Nobel Prize if he had returned to China in the early 1950s.

The quest to produce a home-grown Nobel Prize for science has become entwined in China's resurgent nationalism.

Having hosted a glittering Olympic Games and taken its astronauts into space, China sees a triumph on the global scientific stage as a way to convince the world that it has moved from the periphery to the centre.

But winning a Nobel Prize is completely different from winning an Olympic gold. Until the creation of an environment conducive to first-rate research and nurturing talent, which cannot be achieved through top-down planning, mobilisation and concentration of resources (the hallmarks of China's state-sponsored sports programme), this Nobel pursuit will continue to vex the Chinese for many years to come.

Cong Cao is an associate professor and reader at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham


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Progression in sciences needs to be step by step, you either build them on other people's platform or build on your own. Chinese are late comers in scientific technology developments, they have been importing, transferring a lot from the West in the past. The huge production bases now set up in China would help in the building up of these platforms. Sciences needs a market to flourish and to help it to be recognized as a "award winner". Decades ago Charles Kao invented optical fiber for high speed and high volume data communication, it took more than 40 years for his ingenuity to be recognized with a Noble prize. Now China is in possession of the required industrial, academic and technological environments, I am pretty sure that we will see quite some award winning scientists from China in the near future. China is undergoing structural changes in many ways, not just the economic and finances, but also their science research and developments. This kind of progression is just natural, I will have no surprise the day when they come about.
China current technology behind is due to China had been torn apart, then occupied, by then supper-power of Western European and Japan, civil war, and Cultural Revolution. China will eventually catch up with western countries.
However, this Noble Prize, it seems to me, has been politicized by those good old boys, Norwegian Noble committees. Mr. Liu Xiaobo or President Obama is very good examples. First, HUMAN RIGHT is more related to people’s right been abused by unlawful detention without the due process of law which should be an exercise of the powers of the government as the settled maxims of law permit and sanction, and under such safeguards for the protection of individual rights. Where-as, the PEACE is the tranquility enjoyed by political society internally, by the good order which reigns among its members, and externally by the good understanding it has with all other nations.
Liu Xiaobo does not have any followers to exert control over his members for political tranquility of the society that is an element of internal peace an essential requisite. you tell me what is wrong with those Norwegian Noble committees, it is a provincially minded hypocrite. Noble prize suppose to be a noble yet those Norwegian Noble committees do make the Noble prize a kind of joke.
if human right has nothing to do with peace, then, what it is a purpose of Norwegian Nobel Committees gave Nobel peace to Mr. Liu , as a tool to destabilize Chinese society.
Jennie PC Chiang/江佩珍
1. Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, said in the Wikipedia. My observation is that the ethical system is one of dividing people into distinctive groups of people which then through set rules reunited them so as to function as one society. The system was welcome by rulers understandably and well integrated into the daily life throughout Chinese culture for a society in harmony until the system deteriorated for renewal. In this cyclical of hope and despair, success and failure, the continuity of a culture lies in the contradiction of good comes from evil and vise versa that the stability for society is uninsured but subject to the progress of time. A closer look we will find that the temporary harmony in fact comes out from control. The divide and conquer facilitate control of people.
Science just can’t flourish in a culture that must go through unstable time and people must be controlled. Science requires unspecified time in research and control only of things and not people. So no Nobel Prize in science for Confucius students is not a coincidence.

I am not going to act like a phony and pretend that I know anything about this guy Confucius, but I once picked up a chapter in which he talked about what it means to go on a path of great learning, it makes a lot of sense to me. For if one has a love of knowledge, he cares not for any prize.
Great idea from Confucius and your knowledge gained from reading it. All Chinese, student of this guy's teaching all live happily ever after as 'knowlegeble' people and nation. Of course the fact is far from this proposition. The Nobel prize of course is not the object of learning even to the winners. Here, in this article and comments it is just a tool to ask and to understand why Chinese don't get the prize or more importantly don't create knowledge like others do.
Being not an expert in Confucianism myself like what you claim about yourself, it doesn't mean I shouldn't put in my two cents just like what you have done too. For me the more we look at Confucianism from different point of views and connecting points including using common sense, Chinese may one day totally liberate from Confucianism. I look forward to that day and perhaps so do you.
As a matter of fact, I didn't read the article on this page. I didn't think it would worth my time, to tell you the truth. I only read the title and clicked on it, read the subtitle and scrolled all the way down until I caught your passage. I responded to you with something I learned from the thoughts of this philosopher and agreed with. Nowhere had I ever touched on any -ism.
Whether you ever touched on -ism doesn't add or subtract in our dialogue. That is to say, it is irrelevant.

2. May be there is value in obtain a Nobel in science achievement because it tells more than just science.


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