When Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last month, Dr Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, had mixed feelings.
As the head of the largest and most prestigious research organization in China, with more than 50,000 scientists, Bai found it hard to send congratulations to the first Chinese national to win the prize, without feeling the crack of a whip.
“I felt sincerely happy,” Bai said on the sidelines of the Communist Party’s 18th national congress in Beijing. “But … I am more concerned about when the Chinese scientific community will make an innovative, Nobel Prize-level breakthrough that can greatly propel the development of China’s people and the advancement of human society.
“Generally speaking, Chinese scientific research is still weak. There are still many negative elements hindering the birth of innovative scientific discovery.”
Bai has set some ambitious goals since becoming academy president in February last year and launched many reforms. One of his key objectives is to make Chinese scientists focus on their research as intently as Mo Yan did on his writing.
The results have yet to match his expectations, but Bai still expects Chinese science to one day return to centre stage.
Critics have long cast doubt on China’s scientific research capabilities. A question raised by British sinologist Joseph Needham more than half a century ago still rattles in Bai’s ears.
Needham asked if China, which invented the compass, paper, black powder and printing, had been blind to the dawn of modern science.
“The ‘problem’ was affected by many elements in China such as the economy, politics, history, culture and geography,” Bai said.
Going by the numbers, Chinese science has done well in recent years, ranking No 2 in the world in terms of research and development (R&D) spending and having the most researchers and the most papers published in international scientific journals. But little of that research was considered important and original enough to contend for something as prestigious as a Nobel prize.
“China still has an environment and atmosphere that is not conducive to big innovations, including a lack of investment in human resources development, excessive competition, fighting over resources, sectoral interests, impatience and a longing for quick success,” Bai said.
He said he was also worried by the criticism of Qian Xuesen, the father of Chinese rocket science, who said Chinese universities had never nurtured outstanding talent.
Bai said it would take a long time to change the nation’s education system from focusing on a mass production of exam-takers.
“If we can’t create talent with the spirit of scientific innovation, how can we possibly make a Nobel Prize-level scientific achievement?” he asked.
Bai said Chinese researchers had four main complaints: that they had to spend most of their time competing for research funds from the government; that they had to work under strict government supervision; their uncertain income; and that technical support staff were only half as proficient as those in other countries such as the United States.
His reforms have targeted those issues in various ways: increasing the proportion of non-competitive funding; limiting the number of projects that a researcher can participate in; increasing the flexibility of budget control; and evaluating a researcher’s performance by quality criteria, not the quantity of papers published.
But Bai has also faced resistance to change. Some scientists were good at using connections to get funding and were unhappy that limits were placed on their projects. Some said his reforms were a step backwards because they would reduce competition.
“There is still a large gap between the current situation and the goals in my heart,” Bai said. “Scientists need to actively collaborate, and the scientific community needs to reach a rational, healthy consensus.”
China’s complex bureaucracy also troubles the structural chemist. Bai, a leading nanoscience researcher before assuming the administrative role of academy president, said support from the party’s top leaders and many ministries was needed for reform of the academy.
“Some reform measures can only be effective with systematic reform and a push in the government,” he said. “We need top-down support, [and] the different sectors of government need to work together with timely, assistive measures.”
These days, an academy researcher’s funding could come from the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Education, the National Natural Science Foundation (NSF) or even the People’s Liberation Army. Any reform undertaken by the academy would not be effective without similar reforms in other funding parties.
Previously, Dr Chen Yiyu, director of the NSF, said it had launched similar reforms, such as giving researchers long-term funding to spare them from competitive applications.
Bai said he had asked the central government to increase the academy’s budget so that it could finance up to 80 per cent of its researchers’ research spending.
But the academy had a budget of more than 42 billion yuan (HK$52.22 billion) this year, considerably more than the NSF and the Ministry of Science and Technology, which also want their share of China’s R&D cake. A considerable increase in the academy budget would also draw opposition from researchers in universities.
Li Chunwang , an associate professor with the academy’s Institute of Zoology, said he was a supporter of Bai’s reforms, but their effects had yet to trickle down to his research. “The majority of my research funding comes from outside, such as the NSF,” he said. “As a researcher on animal behaviour, I need more time for field trips.
“I know that reform is hard, but I sincerely hope that the academy will soon be able to fund my research and save me from tonnes of paperwork.”
In Western countries such as Germany and the US, researchers at state-funded scientific institutes such as the Max Planck Institutes and the Los Alamos National Laboratory could work on a particular field of research for decades, with stable funding provided by the state. But in China, scientists competed to get money for various projects and few had the motivation to focus on long-term research.
Bai said he was also concerned about China’s brain drain, especially to the US. With a great deal of top Chinese academic talent remaining overseas, it would be difficult for them to make a discovery that could be credited to China.
“The Americans seem to have dominated the Nobel Prize from 1985 to 2000,” Bai said. “One reason is that the US has a developed economy, excellent research environment and a friendly environment for competition that attracted talent from all over the world. Foreign student immigrants have more or less increased the standard of U.S. universities. “Overseas talent has played a pivotal role in the winning of Nobel prizes.”
To counter the brain drain, China had launched a series of programmes to lure scientists back to China, Bai said. But overseas talent did not only care about money, and also looked for an environment that encouraged scientific innovation.
Despite the problems and challenges, Bai sees some hope for Chinese science. He has submitted his reform plan to the top levels of government and is confident that the party’s new leaders will support it.
Unlike some other countries, China’s support of science would not swing with a change of administration, he said. “We are practising socialism with Chinese characteristics, which guarantees from the fundamental level the continuity, inheritance and progression of all work. It is particularly so in the field of science,” he said.
China has done some original research in quantum communication, iron-based superconductors and stem cells that have had an international impact. China will soon begin building a space station and a Chinese deep sea probe is reaching into the unexplored depths of the oceans.
“Looking at the future, I feel very optimistic about the development of Chinese science,” Bai said. “I believe, in the near future, Chinese scientists will definitely make some scientific achievements that weigh as heavily as a Nobel Prize.”