BUSINESS Sound R&D driving China toward scientific breakthroughs: laureates


Sound R&D driving China toward scientific breakthroughs: laureates

Global Times

02:56, August 15, 2018


The opening ceremony of the Industrialization of Scientific and Technological Achievements forum in Beijing over the weekend. (Photo: Global Times)

China is scaling up investment in scientific and technological innovations. Last year, the country's total spending on R&D was estimated to have hit 1.76 trillion yuan ($279 billion), up 14 percent year-on-year, putting it second behind the US in global rankings. So how is China's scientific development looking now? Is it proportional to its R&D spending? The Global Times recently spoke with several Nobel Prize laureates of physics and chemistry who shared their thoughts on those questions. 

The development of scientific studies in China is now catching up with the advancement rates in the US and Europe, thanks to the country's massive investments in research facilities and large pool of innovation-driving young talent, according to several Nobel Prize laureates and industry observers at a recent forum. This indicates the country's huge potential to win an award in chemistry and physics in the near future.

"The development of China's science is now roughly equal to science development in Europe and the US, so I would expect a number of Nobel Prizes [being awarded to Chinese scientists] in the future," Kip Stephen Thorne, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics laureate for the observation of gravitational waves, told the Global Times over the weekend on the sidelines of the forum.

The forum, titled Industrialization of Scientific and Technological Achievements, was jointly held in a suburban village in Beijing, with the aim of sharing cutting-edged theoretical findings in science and technology.

Michael Levitt, who received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of multi-scale models for complex chemical systems, stressed that China has been "investing a lot" in scientific infrastructure, including university research facilities and laboratory resources, in recent years.

"Nobel Prizes in basic science are awarded for something you did 40 or 50 years ago. Chinese scientists were not so good back then… But now, everything is on the right track, and China is very different from 30 or 40 years ago. It will just take time [for China to win a physics or chemistry Nobel Prize]," Levitt told the Global Times over the weekend. 

Levitt cited the US as an example of how a country's advancement in R&D can help it win Nobel Prizes. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were seldom American Nobel Prize winners, but by the 1950s, the number began surpassing that in other countries and regions, especially Europe, as the US ramped up its research efforts, he told the forum. 

Given China's robust economy, it can sustain huge R&D expenditure, which, combined with support from private enterprises, has provided domestic scientists with the freedom to conduct any kind of research and thus to explore and to innovate, Shuji Nakamura, the inventor of blue light-emitting diode and recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics, said. 

Some of China's technological innovations have already been on the global forefront, industry insiders said. 

For example, over the past five years, the country has reduced its solar panel costs and has also been able to produce good smartphones with less expenditure, which is "unbelievably important for the future of the world," Levitt said. Also, China is very innovative in terms of the invention of mobile payment apps, he said, with those innovations set to serve as an engine of growth that would propel China's economy in the future. 

"Technology is at the center in any advanced country. The strength of the US economy is based primarily on science and technology," so the marvelous robust economy that China is building up will enable the same, Thorne said. 

Young talent

Another overwhelming edge for China in its scientific development is young talent, as they are energetic, passionate and willing to start a career that is devoted to translating theories and technologies into wider applications, Lan Ningyu, CEO of Angel Crunch, one of the forum organizers, said. Global speakers agency Speakers Bureau is also the organizer. 

"One thing I like about China is that there are a lot of [young students] who are full of energy… It makes me excited. In chemistry, when you have more talent, you can do more work and speed up research processes," said Levitt, who has been made honorary professor in several top Chinese universities.

And thanks to that advantage, Thorne said that US scientists are already coming to China for research purposes, with more to follow suit in the future. 

"From the 1960s to the 1990s, we cooperated with Russia in quantum nondemolition [research] and made big breakthroughs. I'm expecting the same kind of collaboration with China in the future, and it would be easier to partner with Chinese scientists than Russian scientists because [there are less] political barriers," Thorne said.

Levitt noted that China is much more open nowadays when it comes to scientific cooperation, but he nevertheless urged Chinese universities to "open up more and share more" with each other.

"In China, there is a lot of competition among top universities… people who get a position at Fudan studied at Fudan, and those who hold a position at Peking University studied at Baida. But in the US, that would never happen. It is unlikely that the very best people stay at the same university, and science should unite the best talent so that they can work together toward a common goal," he added.  


In an interview with Global Times reporter Li Xuanmin (GT), Michael Levitt (Levitt) and Kip Stephen Thorne (Thorne) shared the stories behind their successes and their ideas on how to arouse mass public interest in science.

GT: What are the most important factors behind your Nobel Prize wins?

Levitt: Do something you think is interesting, not something that somebody else tells you is interesting. And some luck as well because you never know what's going to happen. 

Thorne: I never worked to try and win a Nobel Prize. It was not important. The work I put into the project was a very large amount and took very hard work over a period of nearly 50 years. It was very hard work, but it was fun. If it had not been fun, I could probably not have worked so hard for so long. It was so enjoyable during the process of coming and developing and translating ideas.

GT: How do you encourage enthusiasm for science among the general public?

Thorne: Inspiring people about science through art is a powerful tool and this is what I have tried to do in my new career. My new career is largely trying to cooperate with movie-makers, musicians and artists. Through movies, music and art, it's possible to inspire young people about science. I think the movie Star Trek I was involved in was a big rally in terms of inspiration. Once people are inspired, then educating them becomes the next step.

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