China science

Who will be named China’s next top scientist? The countdown begins

  • Regarded as the Chinese Nobel Prizes, the annual national science and technology awards have been running since 1955
  • Focus is on original work that could lead international research
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 10:20pm

China’s top scientists will learn in early January who will receive the annual prestigious science awards, regarded as the country’s Nobel Prizes.

The 2018 winners were selected at Wednesday’s State Council meeting, according to state news agency Xinhua, but their identities will remain under wraps until next year’s ceremony, when President Xi Jinping will present the honours, along with cheques of up to five million yuan (US$730,000).

The national science and technology awards were established in 1955 – just six years after the founding of the people’s republic – and the prize money has grown considerably, from 10,000 yuan (US$1,455) to the millions of yuan available today to the scientists whose discoveries contribute to the country’s economic growth and defences.

For the 300 or so scientists nominated each year, the greatest accolade is the supreme science prize, regarded as a lifetime achievement award, for trailblazing work in fundamental science.

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Over the past two decades 29 Chinese scientists have received the supreme award, during which time the country’s GDP has grown 10 times, thanks to opening up and a focus on science and technology.

This year, the award committee – under the Ministry of Science and Technology – has stressed the importance of original work that can lead international research, a call that echoes China’s ambition to become an innovation hub.

Past winners of the supreme honour include Cheng Kaijia, a pioneer in nuclear physics; Zhao Zhongxian, a forerunner in high-temperature superconductivity; and Tu Youyou, a chemist and Nobel laureate who discovered the malaria treatment artemisinin.

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Cheng, who played an important role in the development of China’s first atomic bomb in the 1960s, died last month at the age of 101.

Zhao, 77, was presented with the top prize in 2017 for his contributions in superconducting material science. He was the first to design and develop a liquid nitrogen temperature superconductor in 1987 and has continued to lead international research in the field with his discovery of iron-based superconducting materials.

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In 2016 Tu, 88, was the first woman to receive China’s supreme science honour – after receiving the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2015. Tu discovered and distilled artemisinin – inspired by traditional Chinese medicine – and helped save the lives of millions afflicted with malaria.

Of the five categories, the other most anticipated award is the first class prize in fundamental science, which recognises teams of researchers.

In both the individual and team fundamental science categories, the committee may choose to recognise one or two winners, or to make no award if no candidates are of sufficiently high standard.

In the running for the first class prize in fundamental science is the research team which first observed experimentally the quantum anomalous Hall effect – a phenomenon that could revolutionise energy efficiency and computational speed.

The team, led by physicists Xue Qikun and Wang Yayu at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, have showed they can achieve the effect – in which electrons can move at millimetre-scale distances without losing energy – with semiconductors, a major step forward in quantum computing.

Also hoping for recognition in the fundamental science team prize are researchers studying the origin of birds.

In the applied technology categories finalists include advanced mining technology, cloud computing and deep brain stimulation methods.