Is China a new superpower in physics? As Tu Youyou earns Nobel Prize for medicine, pair from Anhui get Physics World’s Breakthrough of the Year award

Experts cite government’s unprecedented marshalling of resources into scientific research for number of a papers published and state-of-the-art facilities like world’s largest radio telescope and fastest supercomputer, the Tianhe 2

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2018, 6:05pm

When the top award for Physics World magazine’s “2015 Breakthrough of the Year” went to Professor Pan Jianwei and Lu Chaoyang’s team at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, in eastern China’s Anhui province, last week, the accolade was largely overlooked in China.

This was because the nation’s attention was gripped by the - almost simultaneous - live broadcast of the bestowing of the 2015 Noble Prize for medicine, which was given to pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou for her breakthrough in treating malaria.

Tu became the first Chinese citizen to receive the Nobel Prize for natural science, and the country was deservedly proud.

But despite being overshadowed, Pan and Lu were still thrilled to have won an unprecedented level of recognition from their peers overseas, while also getting to bring more prestige to their scientific fraternity back home.

Their team was recognised for the “fundamental importance” of their research into quantum physics, which generated “interest to all physicists”, according to the awarding body.

The magazine is run by the London-based Institute of Physics, which was established half a century ago. It now exists as a de facto scientific charity with over 50,000 member physicists worldwide.

Each year, a panel of six editors and journalists pick one research work which they agree outshines the rest. The results are closely watched by physicists around the world.

Never in the history of China has a government taken so much interest and invested so many resources in scientific research and technological development as the current one
Chen Pu, historian

Pan’s team was credited this year for its experiments that achieved the first “simultaneous quantum teleportation of two inherent properties of a fundamental particle”, the panel said.

The judges said that the team’s work had brought a number of futuristic technologies, such as communications devices with unbreakable security and computers trillions of times faster than those operating today, closer to reality.

Previous winners include the European Space Agency, whose Rosetta mission landed the first spacecraft on a comet, and the Large Hardon Collider team for the discovery of a Higgs-like particle, a missing link that has been haunting physicists for decades.

The good news for China did not end there.

The work by another team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences ranked third in the magazine’s list of the top 10 breakthroughs of the year.

They got there by virtue of being among the first in a heated international race to discover Weyl fermions, a so-called “ghost particle” that scientists believe could replace electrons as carriers of information in computers of the future.

As such, 2015 has proven a remarkable year for Chinese physicists, with two works having an enormous global impact. It has never happened before.

Science historian Chen Pu said he was not surprised given the level of support they now receive.

“Never in the history of China has a government taken so much interest and invested so many resources in scientific research and technological development as the current one,” said Chen, who also serves as an assistant professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute for the History of Natural Science in Beijing.

READ MORE: China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer nabs top spot in global biannual rankings

In China, government expenditure on research and development has been increasing at the rate of over 20 per cent a year for more than a decade.

Fields like physics are not usually considered a priority by China’s pragmatic leaders, but even this received a budget of US$6.6 billion this year, up 12.5 per cent from 2014.

This puts Chinese scientists in a seemingly advantageous position vis-a-vis their peers in the United States. Federal budget cuts in the US have resulted in an annual decline of up to 9 per cent in scientific funding since 2009, statistics show.

More funding has allowed Chinese scientists to build and plan a number of state-of-the-art facilities, such as the world’s largest radio telescope, an underground neutrino observatory (one of the world’s most powerful particle colliders), the first quantum communication satellite, the world’s fastest super computer (Tianhe 2), and more.

But money is just a carrot the government dangles while also beating a firm stick, according to Chen.

Beijing used probably the world’s “cruellest” performance review system to boost the scientists’ productivity, according to the historian, who also closely monitors scientific reforms in the country.

He gave the example of how a researcher’s contract at a government-run university or research institute can be terminated if the person fails to meet the required number of papers published in international academic journals each year.

The “stick and carrot” policy does seem to have produced positive results, however.

China ranked 14th in terms of the number of papers published internationally back in 1995 but was already No 2 by 2007 after the United States, according to Nature.

But the policy has also prompted many researchers to forsake quality for quantity, critics claim. Earlier this year, more than 40 papers from Chinese researchers were withdrawn by scientific publisher BioMed Central due to the risk that they may have been plagiarised or otherwise not credible.

Professor Xie Sishen, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences with the Institute of Physics in Beijing, said that Chinese physicians had done some important work in recent years, but that it was still too early to say whether China classes as a “superpower” in this field.

Most of the “important” works were based on groundbreaking discoveries made by researchers overseas, Xie said.

One example would be how China is now leading an international study on iron-based superconductors, which could lead to maglev trains becoming affordable for African countries. The catch? The material was first discovered and reported by scientists in Japan.

“We are still waiting ... to get into new territory before anyone else. That’s the goal for physicists,” Xie said.

Chen said that could come in the next decade or so.

“China has the world’s largest army of scientists and engineers, and it is growing rapidly, with many talented scholars returning from overseas lured by high salaries and strong government support,” he said.

“But what is good for the nation may be bad news for individual scientists. Some researchers will soon loss their jobs because the competition will be tougher than ever, and only the fittest will survive,” he added.

“All the country’s top universities and institutes have already started to trim the fat.”