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China makes rapid strides to dominate science

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A first: Two teams of Chinese scientists made a major advance in the development of a new kind of stem cell that doesn’t involve destroying embryos and successfully tested on mice.
A first: Two teams of Chinese scientists made a major advance in the development of a new kind of stem cell that doesn’t involve destroying embryos and successfully tested on mice.

In 2009, China’s research publications output was second only to the U.S.

Just about every week, many of us scientists receive a barrage of e-mails from our scientometrist colleague Dr. Subbiah Arunachalam. A scientometrist is one who quantitatively analyses the scientific productivity of individual scientists, institutions and nations. His e-mails have two major themes.

One of them concerns “open access” of science publications – and argues passionately, and rightly, that scientific reports, papers and journals must be freely accessible to all across the world, and not be governed only by commercial interests.

The other set of e-mails tell us of the scientific productivity, policies adopted by various nations across the world and where we in India stand in the global arena of science and technology.

Latest email

His latest e-mail contains the report made by Dr. Jonathan Adams in the 6 Jan 2010 issue of New Scientist titled “Get ready for China’s domination of science”. This article should give us sleepless nights and goad us into action; not a knee-jerk action but a long-term mission-mode plan of action.

Look at these facts. In 1998, China’s research output was around 20,000 publications per year. In 2006, it reached 83,000, way past those of Japan, UK and Germany. In 2009, it was 120,000, second only to the US which published 350,000.

International tie-ups

Granted that quantity is not a measure of quality, let us look at how the rest of the scientific community thinks of China. International collaborations between China and Europe, US, UK as well as with Korea, and Singapore are steadily increasing.

And such collaborations are on an equality footing; not the type where China provides research samples and people as the passive partner (the so-called Fed Ex research) using which the Western researcher finds interesting information to advance the field. Capacity building within China, and attracting expatriate Chinese in the West to return and set up first class facilities, giving them a free hand to do what they want – these are the policies of current-day China.

Let us look now at cutting edge science. It was in 2006 that Yamanaka in Kyoto came out with the explosive experiment which showed that you can take any cell in the body and induce it to become a stem cell.

2009 achievement

And in 2009, two groups in China induced skin cells of mice into stem cells, and went on further to produce two generations of live mice out of these skin cells!

The other buzzword of science today is nanotechnology. China leads the world in the number of publications in the area of nanoscience and nanotech, with about 5,000 researchers and 600 companies engaged in the field. And we just saw how China launched the world’s fastest passenger train, covering the distance of 1,070 km from Wuhan to Guangzhou in 2 hours 45 minutes.

The second set of e-mail barrage I receive is not from a scientometrist but a legal luminary, Justice T.N.C. Rangarajan — a friend with eclectic interests, who sends mail on a variety of topics.

His latest was, coincidentally, an article by Sharon La Franiere in the 7 Jan 2010 New York Times titled ‘Fighting trend, China is luring scientists home’. She reports on the surprising decision of biologist Shi Yigong, who declined the $10 million HHMI grant to take up the Deanship of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Reversing braindrain

She writes: “Determined to reverse the brain drain of top talent that accompanied its opening to the outside world over the past three decades, China’s leaders are using their now ample financial resources — and a dollop of national pride — to entice scientists and scholars home”.

Soul searching

Dr. Rao Yi, who left Northwestern University in 2007 to become dean of Peking University contrasts China’s “soul searching” with America’s “self-satisfaction”, writes La Franiere.

Should India too not soul-search? The argument that China is totalitarian while we muddle through our democracy, is not good enough. What we need are dedication, discipline and determination. When we launch missions through ISRO and DAE, we get results. So why not in S & T? As Prime Minister Singh said at the Science Congress, let us liberate science from the governmental and organizational stranglehold.

Government agencies must “put money where mouth is” and let researchers make their decisions. India has raised its investment in S & T well in recent past. Let us do so even more- up to 3 per cent of our GDP. This will help university research grow in strength and standard. When you enable universities, you enrich the intellectual strength of a nation.

Flexible funding

And let funding agencies allow for failures, not always support safe and successful short-term projects.

This attitude and policy of government agencies (the world over) is in contrast with that of private foundations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which provide long-term and flexible funding to recipients. In India, I can think of only TIFR and NCBS which do so.

Let us vigorously entice outstanding expatriate scientists to return home the way China has done (and the IT and management people have done), notwithstanding the occasional aberrant arrogance of the Ayyadurai types.

Tapping the rich

Let us allow the payment of part-time monetary compensation to project leaders from grants that they win (the way they do elsewhere). And let us reach out beyond the government and tap the rich.

India boasts of some of the richest people in the world – 52 billionaires – and yet none of them has a Foundation that compares with Howard Hughes, Rockefeller, Packard, MacArthur foundations. Infosys has at least started, albeit in a small way.

Here is an opportunity, funding and support of S&T research through private foundations, through which long term flexible funding for high calibre ideas can come about. Depending just on government alone will only keep us at best where we are.

D. BALASUBRAMANIAN

dbala@lvpei.org


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