The Politics Behind China's Quest for Nobel Prizes

By Yu, Junbo | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Politics Behind China's Quest for Nobel Prizes


Yu, Junbo, Issues in Science and Technology


China is applying its strategy for winning Olympic gold to science policy. It may be surprised by the outcomes--but overall, the world will benefit.

Skeptics about the capacity of China to join the ranks of the industrialized nations should be challenged by the recent rise of the Chinese high-tech business, including the high-speed train industry, telecommunications service providers such as Huawei, IT service providers such as Lenovo, new market-leading energy equipment suppliers such as Suntech, and the competitive success and admiration, even fear, that these businesses have spurred across the world. Yet skepticism is not entirely unwarranted. Some inconvenient truths about science and technology development in China stand in the way of its ambitions. Most prominent among these, as noted by Xuesen Qian, the "Father of Chinese Rocketry" (who received his Ph.D. from MIT and returned to China in 1955), is the failure of Chinese universities and research institutes to cultivate world-class creativity and innovation among their scientists. To Chinese leaders, an increasingly aggravating illustration of this truth is that no homegrown scientist from the mainland has claimed a Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, or Medicine.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that today governs the worlds second largest economy and second largest R&D budget is determined to correct this failure. In October 2013, the CCP Organizational Department identified six scientists as Chinas "outstanding talents," the top tier of the "Ten Thousand Talents Program," and the most likely candidates for a Nobel Prize. Scientists who achieve this rarified level of recognition will benefit from greater autonomy in setting their research agendas, secure research funding to be used at their discretion, and administrated and assessed under terms negotiated directly between the government and scientists. These seemingly ideal privileges are part of the larger effort to promote Chinas overall innovation capacity. But only one goal of this program stands out as explicit and measurable: the Nobel Prize.

The state-driven charge toward the Nobel Prize is unprecedented and unparalleled in science policy. Today's fierce competition among countries for technological advantage, reflected in a diversity of national science, technology, and innovation (STI) policies, has become a bit imprudent and extravagant--national governments are overconfident in their bets on tomorrow's revolutionary technologies, while the cost/benefit effects of their tremendous inputs are of less concern. But no other country uses the Nobel Prize to anchor the success of a national innovation strategy. Such a strategy appears unbalanced, short-sighted, and utterly antithetical to the principle that creativity and innovation in scientific research must be driven by the curiosity of the scientist. In short, this narrow, nationalistic idea appears to say more about CCP politics than about STI policy. What then are the politics?

The continuing quest for legitimacy

Rulers of authoritarian countries have to justify their legitimacy, and the CCP is no exception. Its legitimacy emerges from several historic sources: first through achieving peace, unity, and freedom from exploitation by Western colonialists in 1949; relying on Mao's personal charisma amid the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution; and most recently by delivering rapid GDP growth since the "Reform and Opening Up" of the economy initiated in the late 1970s.

But the Party has pursued other, less apparent or understood strategies for strengthening its legitimacy. One of these is to close the technological gap between China and the West.

Since its defeat during the First Opium War in 1840, all Chinese regimes have suffered military disadvantage due to inferior technological capacity. Constantly bullied and intimidated by various foreign forces, both the elites and the general public have been obliged to pursue effective measures to catch up technologically and thus to improve national security. …

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