China leaping into lead role as R&D power
outgoing tide of top minds has turned, but safeguards lacking
SHENZHEN, CHINA — Last year, Zhao Bowen was part of a team that cracked the genetic code of the cucumber. These days, he’s researching the genetic basis for human IQ. Zhao is 17. Centuries after it led the world in technological prowess — think gunpowder, irrigation and the printed word — China has returned into the ranks of the great powers in science. With the brashness of a teenager, China’s scientists and inventors are driving a resurgence in potentially world-changing research.
Unburdened by social and legal constraints common in the West, however, China’s trailblazing scientists are also pushing the limits of ethics and principle.
A decade ago, no one considered China a scientific competitor. The country’s best and brightest agreed, creating a massive brain drain as they fled to university research labs at Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But over the past five years, Western-educated scientists and entrepreneurs have conducted a rear-guard action, battling China’s bureaucracy to establish research institutes and companies. Those have lured home scores of Western-trained Chinese researchers dedicated to transforming the People’s Republic of China into a scientific superpower.
“They have grown so fast and so suddenly that people are still skeptical,” said Rasmus Nielsen, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, who collaborates with Chinese counterparts. “But we should get used to it. There is competition from China now, and it’s really quite drastic how things have changed.”
atop shoulders of global scientists
China has invested billions in improving its scientific standing. Almost every Chinese ministry has some sort of program to win a technological edge in everything from missiles to medicine. Beijing’s minister of science and technology, Wan Gang, will visit the United States this month and is expected to showcase some of China’s successes.
In May, for example, a supercomputer produced in China was ranked the world’s secondfastest machine at an international conference in Germany. China is now in fourth place, tied with Germany, in terms of the number of supercomputers. China has leaped to second place — up from 14th in 1995 — behind the United States in the number of research articles published in scientific and technical journals worldwide.
Backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Chinese medical researchers, teaming with a firm in the United States, beat out an Indian team last year to develop a new test for cervical cancer that costs less than $5. The goal is to test 10 million Chinese women within three years.
Chinese engineers have significantly improved on Western and Soviet coal-gasification technology as part of a multibillion-dollar
effort to create green Chinese energy.
“The action is here,” said S. Ming Sung, the chief Asia-Pacific representative for the Clean Air Task Force, a U.S.-based nonprofit entity, and a former Shell Oil executive. “In the U.S., there are too many paper researchers. Here, they are doing things.”
Scams, lies and espionage
There are challenges. China is still considered weak at innovation, and Chinese bureaucrats routinely mandate discoveries — marching orders that Western scientists view as absurd.
In 2008, the Ministry of Science and Technology gave researchers two years to come up with 30 medicines ready for clinical trials and only five days to apply for grants to fund the work. That’s despite the fact that since the communist revolution in 1949, China has developed only one internationally recognized drug — Artemisinin — to fight malaria.
Chinese science and technology is also awash in scams and occasionally troubling practices. China is the leading source of what are known as “junk” patents — ridiculous “inventions” that are little more than snake-oil scams. Plagiarism and doctored results also seem to be widespread. A study by Wuhan University uncovered an entire industry of bogus report and thesis writers who raked in $145 million last year, a fivefold increase since 2007.
The emergence of China as a nascent scientific superpower raises questions about the U.S. relationship with Beijing. Ever since the United States opened the door to Chinese students in the 1970s, hundreds of thousands have flocked to America. Most have studied science or engineering and have been welcomed in research institutions across the land. But with China becoming a competitor, U.S. experts have begun to question that practice.
FBI officials allege that there is a large-scale operation afoot in the United States to pilfer American industrial, scientific, technological and military secrets. In the past few years, dozens of Chinese have been convicted of stealing American technology and shipping it to China.
“The science and technology relationship with China has always stood up against all kinds of political pressures,” said Richard Suttmeier, who has researched China’s rise for the National Science Foundation. “Now that you have competition going on, finding the basis for cooperation in the absence of trust is an issue. It goes to questions of espionage and a hunger for technology.”
That hunger is evident in the halls of BGI, home to Zhao Bowen and more than 1,500 other Chinese scientists and technicians. Located in an industrial zone in the southern Chinese megalopolis of Shenzhen, BGI has grown into one of the world’s leading genomics institutes devoted to deciphering the genetic blueprint of organisms.
Over the past few years, scientists at BGI sequenced the genes of a chicken, a silkworm, a panda, a strain of rice and 4,000-year-old human remains from Greenland.
In January, BGI made the biggest purchase of genome sequencing equipment ever, buying 128 ultra-high-tech machines from Californiabased Illumina. With that one acquisition, BGI could be poised to exceed the entire gene-sequencing output of the United States.
Inside the 11-story facility, the vibe is pure Silicon Valley startup: shorts, flip-flops, designer eyewear. Now a full-time employee while continuing his studies, Zhao is turning his attention to a topic Western researchers have shied away from because of ethical worries: Zhao plans to study the genes of 1,000 of his best-performing classmates at a top high school in Beijing and compare them, he said, “with 1,000 normal kids.”
BGI’s secret — and the secret for many of China’s best scientific institutes — seems to be insulating itself from China’s government bureaucracy.
BGI started as the Beijing Genomics Institute in the early 2000s but left Beijing in 2007 after the Ministry of Science and Technology tried to dictate what it could and could not study. The Shenzhen city government offered it millions of dollars in grants and operating expenses to move south.
“We came here because it was the best place for us to pursue science,” said Yang Huanming, the institute’s founder. “We’re not interested in politics.”
By far, China’s most successful research institution is the National Institute for Biological Sciences, known as NIBS, which is responsible for half of the peer-reviewed publications in China. The institute’s 23 principal investigators, its director and deputy director are all returnees from the United States. It’s also the only major research institute in China that does not have a Communist Party secretary.
Neurobiologist Luo Minmin, 37, returned to China six years ago after getting his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and completing a postdoctoral research stint at Duke University. Luo said he has a big budget at NIBS and greater research freedom than he would have in the United States. He’s studying a gene involved in attention-deficit disorder.
“If I had stayed in America, the chances of making a discovery would have been lower,” he said. “Here, people are willing to take risks. They give you money, and essentially you can do whatever you want.”