Why China Won't Win A Science Nobel Prize Anytime Soon
BEIJING — The Chinese authorities have recently introduced a “Ten Thousand Talents Support Program,” a nationwide project for selecting outstanding talent in all areas of scientific and technological innovation. Among those, 100 people would be identified as potential Nobel Prize winners.
Similar programs, equally generous and costly, have been put in place before. But regrettably, none has resulted in a Chinese Nobel Prize in the scientific disciplines.
Applying a nationwide promotion mechanism does have its advantages. For instance, China achieved striking success in the Olympics, even in sports categories that many Chinese people had never heard of before. It also worked when applied to defense technology. In the 1970s, China developed “Two Bombs and one Star,” project (also known as the “Atom Bomb, Superatomic Bomb and Satellite” project) with the same method. Nevertheless, whether it’s the former Soviet Union or China, trying to build up a country’s basic sciences this way has achieved few results.
To put it plainly, scientific research must be founded on a supporting national education and scientific system. When China focused all its efforts in overcoming the difficulties of making the “Two Bombs and One Star,” it depended on the talented people who had studied in the West before the Chinese Communist Party came to power. Even if the government had invested a lot of money and energy, it would have been impossible to achieve the goal under China’s backward conditions at that time without this personnel. Consider North Korea. With all its strength, it has yet to come up with a presentable atomic bomb and rocket.
Winning a Nobel Prize isn’t about taking down a bunker. No matter how strong the fortress and the enemy are, as long as a death squad exists, their death-defying force still has a great chance to bring down a fortress.
But winning the Nobel Prize relies on, in essence, the overall strength of a country's scientific research. So far, in terms of natural sciences, the countries that win are all, without exception, the world’s most powerful nations in education and scientific research. Laureates of Nobel Prizes in Third World countries are in general only in the literary field.
Productive but not profound
China is a large country gaining development momentum. It now has the world’s second largest gross domestic product. But we can’t be too optimistic about its scientific research capabilities just yet. China’s GDP basically comes from the blood and sweat of migrant workers. China can more or less manufacture anything, but the core technologies belong to other people.
A nation’s scientific strength is closely related to its education. Chinese-style education has a standard-answer formula. Good Chinese high school pupils would be excellent in solving difficult problems or winning awards in the Olympiad Competition, a Chinese middle school academic match. But those students would have no chance whatsoever of winning Nobel Prizes after obtaining a doctorate and working in a Chinese research environment. That’s because the Chinese scientific system is just like its education system — full of bad projects and generally led by administrators.
In short, raising a country’s scientific strength and technological competitiveness can’t possibly count on a short-term rapid promotion program, nor can it be achieved just by bringing in talent from other rich countries. Were China’s goal really to win Nobel Prizes, its relevant governmental departments would reform its education and scientific systems. The mindset of directing education and science with administrative power — the idea that power means knowledge — ought to be changed first.