October 10,2008

Why No Mainland Chinese Nobel Laureates?

By Ma Wenluo
On October 8, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was being awarded to Roger Y. Tsien, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Osamu Shimomura of the Marine Biological Laboratory, and Martin Chalfie of Columbia University. The three were honored for "the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP."
Roger Tsien, whose ancestors were from Hangzhou, China, was born in New York in 1952. The Chinese media recently reported that Dr. Tsien was up for this year’s Nobel Prize.
Dr. Tsien’s father’s cousin was Tsien Hsue-shen, father of Chinese rocketry and a major figure in the missile and space programs of both the United States and China, who contributed greatly to China’s aerospace industry.
Two weeks ago, a Chinese spacecraft named Shenzhou-7, carrying three taikonauts (from the Chinese term taikongren, literally "space man") was launched on a Long-March II-F carrier rocket and placed into orbit at an altitude of 343 kilometers, and a Chinese astronaut became the first of his countrymen to walk in space.
China has become the third country to have a man walk in space. But as yet, no Chinese citizen has won a Nobel Prize. This puzzles the Chinese. Frank Yang and Lee Tsung-Dao, two Chinese Americans, won the physics Nobel in 1957, followed by Ting Chao-Chun, Lee Yuan-Tseh, Steven Chu, and Daniel C. Tsui, winners in physics or chemistry. All Chinese Americans. It was once declared in France’s Le Monde that Ch’ien Chung-Shu was a possible Chinese candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. Ba Jin, another famous Chinese writer, was also recognized as candidate in 2001. However, neither brought home to China a Nobel Prize.
China is the workshop of the world, but due to the lack of R&D and innovative capability, key technology in the information industry still originates in foreign companies. In science and technology, Japan is infamous for imitation, and is criticized for its "lack of innovation."  However, Japan is geographically about as large as China’s Fujian Province, with a population of around only 127 million, compared to China’s 1.3 billion. Sixteen people born in Japan have won the Nobel Prize since World War II. The Chinese got metal at the Olympic Games. The Japanese get Nobel Prize medals.
The Chinese make great achievements in areas that need the effort of the whole country, such as aerospace, sports, and engineering, but don’t do very well in areas that require innovative individual qualities. Chinese parents pay great attention to the children’s education, which begins when they’re still in their mother’s belly. While very young, they learn to recite poems and play the piano. Besides learning at school, they are often trotted around to various training centers. They are crammed with information. But winning a Nobel Prize is not decided by what has been learned but what has been created.
The problem lies not only in China’s education system, but in its science and technology system. China is one of the few major economies in the world without a Ministry of Science & Technology.
The Chinese government pays great attention to the development of the field, but in China the achievement of a scientist is measured by the number of papers s/he has published. According Japanese Ministry of Education figures, the number of Chinese scientific papers in 2006 ranked the second in the world. This coincides with the statistics of the Institute of Science and Technology Information of China. But Chinese netizens believe much of this is rubbish.
It is possible that the Nobel Prize hasn’t caught up to China yet. Most of the scientific achievements awarded with a Nobel came twenty or thirty years ago, when China was still in the "cultural revolution."
But few scientists even discuss "why China has no Nobel Prize winners." They seem to take no interest. Maybe in such a country with rapid economic growth, scientists care more for more profitable projects. After all, at a time when an apartment costs 15 years of a scientist’s total income, s/he can hardly concentrate on basic scientific studies.
The Beijing Olympic Games, focusing on "one world, one dream", awed the world with a fascinating opening ceremony. The world was stunned by China’s high technology used in the ceremony. Maybe China’s Nobel Prize dream will come true soon. Roger Tsien said maybe his winning of the Nobel Prize might encourage more Chinese young people to research basic theories, showing China a way to the Nobel Prize.



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