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Nobel Prize

Tu Youyou's Nobel Prize for medicine will be a catalyst for greater scientific work in China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 1:39am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 1:39am

A Nobel laureate in the sciences, like the hosting of the Olympic Games, is a marker for a nation, especially one that is on the rise.

China's dream of a citizen winning the world's most prestigious scientific accolade has at last been attained, with Tu Youyou being jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for her role in developing a malaria drug that has saved millions of lives.

She, her team and the country's people have every right to be proud, but the honour transcends satisfaction.

The profile of Chinese scientists has been raised and impetus given to efforts to find ways to lift the nation and world.

Tu, 84, the first Chinese to win a Nobel science prize for research done in China and the first ethnic Chinese woman recipient, gives cause for inspiration.

Science prizes are given only after decades have lapsed and the impact of research can be fully appraised.

That makes her work more remarkable; it was begun in the late 1960s at the height of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, when chaos at universities and the persecution of many of the best minds made scholarly work difficult.

Her interest in traditional Chinese medicine drew her to ancient texts that pointed to the sweet wormwood plant as a means of fighting malaria; the discovery of the compound artemesinin has since saved millions of lives.

Traditional Chinese medicine is threatened by Western medicine. The prize makes clear that beliefs and practices that are thousands of years old have a place beside modern medicine and should be preserved and strengthened.

Tu's merging of both offers a valuable lesson. For one, further study may help find treatments for strains of malaria in Southeast Asia that have become resistant to artemesinin-based drugs.

Chinese researchers have previously won Nobel science prizes, but their work was done after settling in other countries. The inability to join the US and others as a science award recipient frustrated, to the point of being embarrassing; it brought into question the Chinese education system and furthered the belief among some that it sapped creativity.

As welcome as Mo Yan's Nobel literature award in 2012 was, it did not quench the thirst for a science prize, while the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo in 2010 provoked anger.

The vast majority of China's best students stay overseas after graduating. Tu's award gives reason for an improved climate for research and greater funding. Young scientists will then have every reason to stay at, or return, home to develop their ideas.