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Science: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao Sees Science as a Key to Development
Photograph courtesy of Richard Stone
During a two-hour meeting with the editor-in-chief of the journal Science, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed hope for increasing investment in basic research, reducing energy consumption by 4% annually as economic gains continue, improving food safety and leveraging science to help the poor.
Wen's conversation with Bruce Alberts of Science is being published in the journal's 17 October 2008 edition. An editorial written by Wen, plus a news article on science and technology in China, also will appear in a forthcoming issue of Science, which is published by the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
"In recent years, we have continuously increased the level of support" for basic research, Wen told Alberts, describing fundamental scientific investigations as "the wellspring and driving force" of innovation. "But I think [China's investment in basic research] is still insufficient."
China's Ministry of Science and Technology has reported that 5% of the nation's total investment in science is being spent on basic research, according to Alberts, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. By comparison, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has reported that 17.5% of the United States' total investment in science was being spent on basic research in 2007.
But scientific achievement by Chinese scientists and engineers has turned sharply upward in recent years, based on scholarly journal articles and patents. In addition, Alberts said after returning to Washington, D.C., that he was extremely impressed by the high caliber of students he met at Tsinghua and Peking universities. Among 500,000 young people who took a national university entrance examination in one particular province, for example, only 70 were accepted, according to a student who spoke with Alberts during his trip.
Alberts, visiting Beijing to deliver lectures at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Tsinghua University, joined Science Asia News Editor Richard Stone for the rare personal meeting with the Chinese Premier and Chen Zhu, China's Minister of Health. Chen was instrumental in arranging the meeting, which was also attended by Science contributing correspondent Hao Xin.
Remarks by Wen—a professional geologist who is in charge of China's government and works closely with President Hu Jintao—"clearly reveal his passion for both science and technology, as well as his recognition of their central importance to society," Alberts said.
For example, when asked about the recent tainted-milk crisis in China, Wen said that both the producers and the government must accept responsibility for preventing foods from being tainted in the future. "We feel great sorrow about this milk incident," he said. "I once again solemnly emphasize that it is absolutely impermissible to sacrifice people's lives and health in exchange for temporary economic development."
All foods must meet international standards, and in particular, exported foods must meet the standards of importing countries, Wen said. The Ministry of Health has now been assigned central oversight of food safety in China, he added.
Wen also acknowledged China's challenges in moving toward more environmentally friendly practices, and he promised that the country will continue to make improvements. "We have established a goal, that is in future development, our [Gross Domestic Product] growth every year must be accompanied by a 4% decrease in energy consumption," he said, "and a 2% reduction in [chemical oxygen demand] and sulfur dioxide emissions every year."
Noting that China has been an industrial nation only for several decades, he nonetheless added that "we will now begin to shoulder our due responsibilities" for protecting the environment. China's coal production currently exceeds 2.5 billion tons per year. "This kind of huge consumption of energy, especially non-renewable fossil fuel, will not be sustainable," Wen said.
Alberts congratulated Wen on his country's recent successful space mission. The Science editor-in-chief further proposed that science and science diplomacy can be important tools for helping to ease political tensions between nations because scientists all over the world share common goals to improve human welfare.
Wen agreed. "Exchanges and collaborations between scientists can help promote exchange and cooperations in economic and social realms between countries," he said. "More scientific language and less diplomatic rhetoric may make this world even better."
Wen applied his scientific training when he was called upon to respond to the tragic 12 May 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. In his conversation with Alberts, Wen described his four priorities for responding to the disaster and helping to prevent earthquake damage in the future. The first priority was to help people, and Wen said that 80,000 were rescued from the earthquake rubble. He described his second priority as improving the monitoring of aftershocks. A third priority was to prevent "quake lakes" from bursting, and Wen said that the Tangjiashan quake lake, containing 300 million cubic meters of water and endangering Mianyang, is being successfully managed. Wen described his fourth priority for disaster recovery as preventing disease in the hardest hit regions.
Alberts' interview with Wen also covered China's "scientific outlook on development." Wen explained that there are several fundamental principles at the heart of China's science-based efforts to improve people's lives and the country's economy.
Specifically, he said that any plan for China's progress should put people first, by seeking to increase material as well as cultural prosperity. In addition, Wen advocated "comprehensive development," which he described as including the integration of economic and political reform, or progress but also traditional Chinese culture. He further said that China's efforts will seek to resolve disparities between rich and poor, and balance development within the agricultural, industry and service sectors of the economy. Finally, he said that China will work toward sustainable development that addresses the inherent challenge of limited resources to support a population of 1.3 billion.
Wen noted that innovation "needs to start with children," who must learn independent thinking and creative problem-solving. He also emphasized that students must cultivate scientific ethics and "uphold the truth, seek truth from facts, be bold in innovation and tolerant of failure." Wen promised to "hold fast to the policy of opening up to the outside world."
Both Wen and Alberts discussed the importance of science education for achieving economic progress, life-changing scientific advances and better understanding between nations.
Coincidentally, the visit between Wen and Alberts took place on the 30th anniversary of the first delegation of AAAS to China, as well as the first anniversary of the opening of Science's Beijing bureau.
The meeting also occurred in tandem with two other key AAAS activities in China. Past AAAS President Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden had visited China at the same time to deliver the first-ever AAAS-Chinese Academy of Sciences Distinguished Lectureship on Sustainability. Raven was joined on his trip by Tom Wang, AAAS director for international cooperation who also serves as deputy director for the new AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.
Catherine Matacic, who runs the EurekAlert! Chinese Web site at AAAS, was in Beijing, too, to coordinate what was believed to be the first China-based press conference related to a Science paper.
The Science press conference in Beijing focused on a study by Chinese scientists who concluded that genetically engineered cotton had effectively reduced populations of cotton bollworms, and also seemed to benefit other crops. The study, by Kongming Wu, Yanhui Lu, and Hongqiang Feng of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, was the latest example of outstanding China-authored research appearing in Science.
Worldwide, Science editors receive some 12,000 submissions each year. Between 7% and 8% of those submissions, or 840 to 960 articles, ultimately are accepted for publication, following rigorous peer review. In 2007, Science published approximately 30 articles with Chinese authors or co-authors, according to Science Deputy Managing Editor Brooks Hanson.
Alberts, president emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences who served as chair of the National Research Council from 1983 until 2005, has special interests in science education and international scientific cooperation.
"Bruce Alberts joined AAAS and Science after many years of international scientific leadership. His activities have resulted in cooperative relationships with an array of influential scientists, engineers and leaders in other countries," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science. "And one of those connections was able to help facilitate the meeting with the Chinese premier. We also were very fortunate to have an award-winning reporter like Richard Stone on staff who has become very well respected in the Chinese scientific and journalism communities, and thus could help make the right connections for this unique interview."
Since opening the Science Beijing bureau in October 2007, Stone has covered major events such as the devastating earthquake. His reporting has ensured that a steady stream of news and feature stories from China appear in Science. He also has sought to raise Science's profile in China by appearing as a guest commentator on China's English-language TV station, China Central Television (CCTV)-9. Stone described the meeting with Wen at the government leaders' compound in the heart of Beijing, Zhongnanhai, as a thrill and an honor. "I can't imagine a better way to cap our first year in China," he said.
In 2007, AAAS Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian and Wang helped to formalize agreements with two of China's leading scientific organizations, outlining plans for collaboration related to publishing, science education, sustainability, science policy, and opportunities for women scientists and engineers. The AAAS agreements with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the China Association for Science and Technology call for cooperative efforts to translate and disseminate educational materials and high-impact Science papers, among other efforts.
"This meeting demonstrated the seriousness that China's most senior officials place on science and technology as a critical driver to their broader development plans," Turekian said. "There are only a handful of leaders in the world that would commit this sort of time to meet with a foreign scientist. AAAS and Science were grateful for the opportunity."
16 October 2008