Wan Gang is the only minister without Communist Party membership. The vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and chairman of the China Zhigong Party was born in Shanghai in 1952. The Wan family belongs to what Chinese respectfully call 'a house of books and incense', meaning high education. His cousin, Wan Jiabao, known by his pen name as Cao Yu, is the most famous playwright on the mainland. Wan Gang grew up in a comparatively well-off environment until 1969, when the Cultural Revolution reached its zenith. He was classed as a descendant of an anti-revolutionary family and sent to a small village in Jilin province bordering North Korea for six years. The hardship was almost unbearable, but the young man was deeply touched by the sincerity of farmers. He learned how to handle a hoe, steer a plough, ride a horse and even do the village accounting. The stint in the countryside brought him his first hands-on encounter with an automobile - a tractor, to be exact - which he pulled apart, assembled and managed to repair. But his biggest dream in those days was to have lots of meat to eat. In 1975, the farmers in the community put their fingerprints on a letter recommending he go to Northeast Forestry University to study structural engineering. Four years later, he took an examination and entered Tongji University as a graduate student of structural mechanics. The World Bank awarded him a scholarship in 1985 and he signed up to study for a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Clausthal University of Technology in Germany. His thesis in 1991 was about automobile noise reduction; it not only earned him his first patent but also a reward from the mayor of Clausthal-Zellerfeld and a job offer from Audi. In the next decade he worked his way up to become the technical manager of the automaker's production and planning department. Zhu Lilan, then minister of science and technology, met him in Germany in 2000 and voiced the hope that he would return to take charge of a national programme to develop alternative energy vehicles. Dr Wan returned a year later and became dean of the new fuels automobile engineering centre at Tongji University. He was appointed president of the university in 2004, giving him a rank equivalent to a vice-minister, before being appointed minister of science and technology in April, last year. Dr Wan said that as a researcher he never tried to avoid contact with senior government officials because every scientist needed support from various sources. But he never intended to become a minister. 'I just wanted to come back, do my best as a researcher and help China's automobile industry take off,' he said. But with ministerial power, he now has a chance to address and fix some issues holding back the country's scientific and technological development. 'If you take a tour around our key laboratories you will find that many of them are armed with the world's most advanced equipment. But the software - the work assessment, research incentives, the education and the overall atmosphere for research and development - still lags behind developed countries.' The second issue is the lack of social and private participation in scientific and technological advancement. Many research projects are still funded by the state and business involvement is limited, which results in the slow transfer of laboratory discoveries to production plants. 'The most fundamental issue is how to create an environment so that domestic talent, especially young people coming out of our own system, can emerge more rapidly with highly qualified research skills. The key is to create an environment that tolerates failure,' Dr Wan said. 'Failure is a good thing. If we can prove, after a sufficient amount of experimentation, that something or some method does not work, we should still reward the project participants for their hard work and talent. This is the most important spirit of the recently released law for scientific and technological advancement.'