An experiment

Beijing’s new plan to win Nobel Prize for Science


And the winner... isn't China

One imagines that when Beijing-based ambassadors brief visiting dignitaries on acceptable small talk to use on Chinese leaders the subject of Nobel Peace Prizes is usually on the ‘best avoided’ list.

China’s top brass isn’t impressed that the Chinese winners of this honour have all been vocal critics of the government. (In 2010 the committee gave the award to a jailed pro-democracy activist, bestowing the honour on an empty chair in Oslo and rousing the sort of international media attention that the Chinese leadership detests.)

Mo Yan’s win for Literature last year helped make the Nobels a little less taboo (see WiC168).

But the lack of recognition in the science category of the Award also rankles, reminding the Chinese of the innovation gap that still exists with more technologically-advanced economies of the US, the UK, Germany, Japan  – and even Hungary, if one were to go by Nobel laureates in science alone.

The quest to win a Nobel for scientific achievement has prompted the launch of a new initiative in which the government is selecting scientists for additional support and funding. The so called ‘Ten Thousand Talents Programme’ was introduced last year and last week some 279 researchers, academics and technicians were selected as worthy. Of these, six are reputed to be considered as potential Nobel grade.

Xue Qikun, a quantum physicist at Tsinghua University is one of the elite. Liu Zhongfan, director of Peking University’s Centre for Nanoscale Science and Technology is another, as is Wang Yifang, director of the Beijing-based Institute of High Energy Physics. All three have won international prizes for their work previously.

So what does the Ten Thousand Talents Programme offer? On this point the information is rather vague. All of the ten-thousand-talented are supposed to receive funding of Rmb1 million ($164,048) for their work. Will that suffice?

It will help but scientists say it isn’t just about money. Many complain of more mundane, everyday obstacles to their ingenuity, including having to hold administrative jobs as well, meaning a lot of time is spent on paperwork. Another gripe is the difficulty of obtaining the equipment necessary to carry out the type of experiments in the Nobel Prize mould. Some scientists who have returned to China as part of its earlier ‘Thousand Talents Programme’ even talk about having to source parts for their laboratories on shopping website Taobao, reports the Global Times.

Others say the problems run deeper, pointing to an education system that sometimes looks at the spirit of curiosity with suspicion; an academic mentoring system that fosters loyalty rather than open debate; and a general lack of intellectual dynamism that discourages many foreign-educated Chinese scientists from returning home.

Writing in the South China Morning Post last month, Cong Cao, an associate professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, had this to say about the Ten Thousand Talents Programme: “Winning a Nobel Prize is completely different from winning an Olympic gold. Until there is the creation of an environment conducive to first-rate research and nurturing talent – which cannot be achieved through top-down planning, mobilisation and concentration of resources (the hallmarks of China’s state-sponsored sports programme) – this Nobel pursuit will continue to vex the Chinese for many years to come.”

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