Saturday, December 15, 2007

A brave new future for China in science

A brave new future for China in scienceBy MARY BROWN BULLOCKPublished on: 12/14/07

My introduction to Chinese scientists was at Dulles Airport in April 1974, two years after President Nixon's historic visit. My assignment — actually my very first job — was to escort Chinese seismologists around the United States for a month, one of the first scientific exchanges between the two previously estranged nations.

The delegation had traveled by way of Moscow and was clearly exhausted when they landed: I found the 10 men totally uncommunicative. We traveled by bus in near silence to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington where I had arranged a welcoming dinner. The elegant service was interminably slow. When the waitress asked us if we would have dessert, I responded — no — everyone is tired and needs a rest. Whereupon the 65-year-old delegation head, Gu Gongxu, suddenly came alive. In perfect English he called the waitress back to the table: "We'll all have pie, apple pie, apple pie a la mode — I've waited 25 years for a piece of American apple pie." The ice was broken.

Mary Brown Bullock is president emerita of Agnes Scott College in Decatur . This column was adapted from a recent speech.
Gu was one of several thousand Chinese students who had studied in the United States before l949, returned to China and, after suffering for their American training in Mao's China , led in re-connecting American and Chinese science in the l970s and l980s. When he returned to Cal Tech and the Colorado School of Mines, Gu was received as a distinguished alumnus. His visit paved the way for the United States Geological Survey to establish seismological monitoring stations in China which provide real time information about movements in the Earth's crust.

Today, more than 30 years after Gu's visit, China 's science and technology are driving its economic modernization. It is a developing country with Nobel aspirations.
The Chinese people are acutely aware that China 's science led the world until about the l8th century: Chinese invented paper, gunpowder, moveable type and accurately predicted Halley's comet — all hundreds of years before the West. For the last 150 years, all of China 's leaders have aspired to regain their rightful intellectual place in the world.
After the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping recognized that China needed to both train scientists and engineers abroad. Since 1979, more than 700,000 students and visiting scholars have studied in the West.

While many of the younger scientists have yet to return to China , most of the visiting scholars have done so. Today, this western educated group is leading China 's scientific development. Information, space and environmental science are among China 's top priorities. It has become a global leader in nanotechnology and stem-cell research. A new system of national laboratories includes major global diseases and plant-breeding. China 's investment in research and higher education has increased at a higher rate than its 10 percent economic growth: Its R&D spending now ranks third, behind the United States and Japan .

China's science and technology is not yet a powerhouse, but American universities and corporations believe that within a quarter of a century it will be. Accordingly, collaboration with Chinese scientists and investments in jointly operated research facilities has been accelerating. Today, there are more than 1,000 foreign-funded R&D centers in China , compared to fewer than than 200 in India . Likewise, universities are scrambling to set up collaborative research labs in China . Georgia Tech was one of the earliest American universities to establish collaborative programs with China . Why should we be collaborating with a potential competitor?

Universities and corporations give the same answer: American science and technology will benefit from collaboration with China 's rapidly developing scientific community. The U.S. government takes a somewhat different position. Aware of both the commercial advantages but also the challenge of strategic competitiveness it maintains tough export controls on dual-use technology.

America's scientific relationship with China will be both challenging and promising in the years ahead. Whether the problem is global health or climate change or the exploitation of space China will be a major player.

My message to the young scientists today is: Take advantage of any opportunity to travel to China . You will keep pace with global science, and you will be ready, in an informed way, to influence U.S.-China policy. With luck, you will also forge professional friendships that last for decades, and that may, like those of professor Gu Gongxu, ultimately help both nations transcend political differences and contribute to world peace.

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