China Faces Hurdles Amid Quest for a Nobel Prize

Chi-Chi-Zhang, Seattle Times, October 6, 2010

It’s Nobel season, and China is engaged in an annual bout of hand-wringing: Why can’t the country that invented the compass and gunpowder–and that recently rocketed from poverty to global power–win one of the venerated prizes?

As Nobels went this week to British, Russian, American and Japanese scientists, Chinese media paired special reports on the winners with expert debates on why China came up short again.

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More than another milestone, a Nobel would be proof that China is retaking what many Chinese see as its rightful place as one of the world’s leading civilizations. For much of the past century, science assumed religious-like proportions in the minds of China’s elite, admired as a key to resurrecting a country that had fallen behind the West.

{snip} “Only with accolades such as the Olympics and winning a Nobel Prize will China feel it can convince the world it has moved from the periphery to the center.”

Nine ethnic Chinese have previously won Nobel Prizes, including Yang in 1957 for his work on subatomic particles. But none of them are Chinese nationals, and, with one exception, their groundbreaking work was done outside China, reinforcing a sense of failure among many Chinese.

The government has disowned other Nobels associated with China. It excoriated the awarding of the Peace Prize in 1989 to the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of China-controlled Tibet. It disavowed author Gao Xingjian, who left China for France in the 1980s to escape censorship, when he won the Literature Prize in 2000. This year it has pressured the Norwegian Nobel Committee to try to dissuade it from giving the Peace Prize to imprisoned democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo.

Yet winning a Nobel has been an avowed goal and the lack of one, especially in science, gnaws at an increasingly confident China.

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China’s biggest hurdle is a science and academic structure that is hampered by plagiarism, bureaucracy and a traditional deference to authority.

While science Nobels often are awarded for work done in a laureate’s 30s or 40s, China’s seniority-based hierarchy requires scientists to wait until late in their career to direct major research, said Cao, the State University of New York researcher.

Promising figures often are plucked from the laboratory and promoted to leadership posts in government, ending hands-on research. China’s leading respiratory expert, Zhong Nanshan, was credited with helping to identify and then stem the SARS pneumonia outbreak in 2003. He was promoted and now juggles a half-dozen administrative roles, serving as the head or a leading member of many medical associations and research bodies.

Plagiarism has flourished at Chinese universities as researchers face greater pressure to publish to secure promotions. In December, two scholars were dismissed from their lecturer posts after their published papers in an international chemistry journal where found to be fraudulent.

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