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China's talent plan to unleash creativity
Publication Date : 12-12-2013
China's drive to cultivate world-class scientists, the Ten-Thousand Talents Programme, is being seen by observers as an effort to pave the way for a Nobel Prize.
The 10-year programme pledges to bulldoze through tedious red tape in order to offer more liberal and flexible funding to the nation's brightest minds, according to the Organisation Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.
The goal, it said, is to foster more than 10,000 Chinese talents, including 100 world-class scientists, whom Xinhua News Agency and the People's Daily described as "competitive candidates for a Nobel Prize".
But insiders have raised questions over whether the ambitious campaign will tackle the root cause of problems holding back innovation and fundamental science in China.
The first batch of 277 talents were identified in late October.
In an e-mail to China Daily, the organisation department said the "top 100 pre-eminent talents" will be given funding to set up their own research laboratories and act as chief scientists.
Funding requests will be discussed "case by case and decided based on individual needs" to support exploratory and original research, the e-mail read.
Liu Zhongfan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who specialises in carbon materials, was selected as one of the first batch of pre-eminent talents, along with five others.
He said the programme is a chance to reform research funding in China, which affects tens of thousands scientists.
"State funding now requires quick returns, and most researchers are expected to publish a pile of papers - the quality of which is often questionable - as well as cope with various reviews and checks," he said.
"The programme will choose 100 talents in 10 years and give ample financial support. That will encourage teams such as mine to set lofty ambitions."
Unlike the current situation, successful candidates will be able to identify and pursue research of their choice, rather than be confined to fields dictated by the people holding the purse strings.
Scientists in China can now dedicate only 30 per cent of their working time to research due to the need to socialise with funding organisers and submit academic papers, and the higher administrative positions they hold the less time they have, according to a China Youth Daily report in 2010 that cited a poll by the China Association for Science and Technology.
Jean-Marie Andre, emeritus professor at the University of Namur and a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, compared the Ten-Thousand Talents Programme with the IBM fellowship that started in 1962.
The computer giant gave candidates a chance to identify and pursue their own research without the constraint of ensuring that the results are useful to the company. As of this year, it has fostered five Nobel Prize winners and generated nearly 7,500 patents.
"Just push the development of fundamental research and allow the brightest scientists to freely explore the issues they find interesting," Andre said.
The question of whether the Ten-Thousand Talents Programme will do anything to improve fundamental science, however, is open to debate.
China ranked second in the world for research and development investment last year, in excess of 1 trillion yuan (US$164 billion). But less than 5 per cent was allocated to fundamental science.
The percentage in developed economies is at least double that in China, according to the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the top political advisory body.
Liu said three basic conditions decide the level of a country's fundamental research: talent, investment and the research culture.
"I expect it will bring in further investment ... and attach more significance to cultivating scientific talent," he said, before predicting that the programme will start to produce results after five to 10 years.
Li Xia, professor of scientific policy at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, agreed and said the attempt to liberalise funding is a push in the right direction to encourage creativity and pure science.
However, after taking a closer look at the background of Liu and the five other world-class talents chosen, he raised doubts on whether the programme is aimed at supporting the right people.
"All six are well known, with five of them academics with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and most are in their 50s," he said. "They have numerous channels to get funds and they have passed the most productive years of their life for research."
He suggested the government learn from the US, where postdoctoral research stations hire the brightest minds globally at a relatively low cost, as young researchers can devote the best years of their life to science.
Chen Yuan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Berkeley's Plant and Microbial Biology Department, said she went overseas because the US can provide a better cultural environment for her research.
"There is more equality and trust in terms of interpersonal relationships," said the 30-year-old, who received a PhD from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute Botany in Beijing.
Chen now lives on a monthly salary of about $3,000, which she regards as low but enough.
Chen is exactly the kind of person China wants to lure back home. But the search is also on for foreign experts to help boost reforms in science and technology.
In a speech in Beijing to 3,000 overseas Chinese in October, President Xi Jinping said China should make full use of human resources at home and abroad, as the "Chinese Dream" of national rejuvenation cannot be realized without talent.
China has realised that it is vital to introduce more favourable policies to develop its domestic talent pool and lure back overseas talent, according to the Organisation Department of the CPC Central Committee.
The initial step was the Thousand Talents Plan, to identify and encourage top workers overseas to come back to China. So far, about 4,000 have returned, including 40 academics.
"Practice has proved that active introduction of overseas high-level talents is a quick, pragmatic and effective way to relieve our talent shortage in key areas," the organisation department said in its e-mail.
"Meanwhile, we should realise that domestic talents are the main force to build an innovation-driven country, so strengthened efforts to cultivate domestic talent in the long run is fundamental."
The Ten-Thousand Talents Programme, also known as the Special Support Plan for National High Level Talents, was launched in 2012.
On the record, officials have not clearly stated that the goal is to win a Nobel Prize, but it has been widely interpreted as such among the academicians and media organisations.
Sun Dawen, a professor of food and bio-system engineering at University College Dublin and a member of the Royal Irish Academy, said it is reasonable for China to crave a homegrown winner, as "the government wants to show the people and the world they are trying their best to promote the development of science and technology".
The situation is the same in the US, Britain and other Western countries, he said.
"Winning a Nobel Prize for China will greatly inspire the people, especially the young generation, and encourage more people from all over the world to work and live in China."