China leap­ing into lead role as R&D power

out­go­ing tide of top minds has turned, but safe­guards lack­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - TECH MONDAY - By John Pom­fret

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.”

Buffer­ing bu­reau­cracy

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.”

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