Returning the favour: ‘China’s Nobels’ reward world-class researchers bringing top talent home

Mainland China’s richest science prize recognises recipients for work on molecular structures, quantum satellites and algebraic geometry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 September, 2017, 10:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 September, 2017, 11:30pm

A decade ago, biophysicist Shi Yigong answered the call from his home country, resigning from Princeton University and heading back to China for good.

On the weekend, Shi, dean of Tsinghua University’s life sciences school, was awarded US$1 million as one of three recipients of this year’s Future Science Prize, a series launched last year as China’s version of the Nobels.

Quantum satellite researcher Professor Pan Jianwei, 47, picked up the award for physical sciences while Peking University’s Xu Chenyang, 36, was the recipient in mathematics and computer science.

Shi said the award for his work on the structure of molecular complexes called spliceosome reaffirmed his decision to return to China. It was also recognition of a team effort.

“To a great extent, I have given this prize because of the nation’s continuous investment in fundamental science in the past decade,” NetEase news portal 163.com quoted him as saying.

He said he was thankful to the support he received from Tsinghua even though “a number of people were not optimistic [about my return] 10 years ago”.

All three scientists studied and worked abroad before returning to pursue research in China. Pan received his doctorate from the University of Vienna while Xu received his from Princeton.

Beijing has encouraged Chinese scientists overseas to return to the mainland, offering job and research opportunities to elite talent.

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Professor Tony Chan Fan-cheong, president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the awards showed the appeal among Chinese scientists of returning to the mainland.

Chan said all three recipients had spent substantial time overseas, and Shi and Pan were well known not only in China but internationally.

“The selection of these three awardees signifies ... that these scientists are given the resources to develop national science programmes of national importance as well as international significance, and ... that China is determined, and has the capabilities, to develop science at a world-class level,” he said.

Professor An Hong, from the University of Science and Technology of China, said such awards fostered respect for scientists but there was still a big gap between China and developed countries in managing research funds, the quality of publication and the standard of academic conferences.

“In terms of the overall academic atmosphere, other countries are still better and that is why many scientists still have to travel to other countries for international conferences. This is not something you can solve with money,” she said.

Quantum teleportation breakthrough earns Pan Jianwei’s team China’s top science award

The Future Science Prize was launched last year by a group of mainland scientists and entrepreneurs. Its sponsors include Pony Ma Huateng, co-founder of Hong Kong-listed Tencent; Robin Li Yanhong, chairman and chief executive officer of Baidu; and William Ding Lei, founder and chairman of NetEase.

It is awarded regardless of nationality but the winners must have conducted the bulk of the research in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.

Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming, from Chinese University of Hong Kong’s medicine faculty, won the life science section last year for work on non-invasive prenatal tests.

The winners’ cheques for the Future Science awards are the highest on the mainland, while the Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize rewards each recipient with US$1.2 million.