The future of science is basic

Education | Tony Chan 19 Sep 2017

this year's recipients for the China-based Future Science Prize was announced recently, and three prominent names won: Shi Yigong, a renowned biophysicist; Pan Jianwei, a quantum physicist, and Xu Chenyang, a mathematician.

I had written about this last year when the prize was new; Dennis Lo from the Chinese University of Hong Kong was one of two winners last year. All three of the recipients are under 50 years old, and I believe the prize is a well-deserved award for their work.

The purpose of the Future Science Prize is to reward the scientists who have made outstanding achievements in science and technology for work done primarily in Greater China.

The prize is US$1 million (HK$7.8 million) each, and is dubbed China's Nobel Prize (just like the Shaw Prize is Hong Kong's Nobel).

Shi, vice president of Tsinghua University, is an expert in the field of protein X-ray crystallography.

He is known best as one of the early "sea turtles" who gave up their prestigious professorships in the United States and returned to China. To his chagrin, he has encountered many bumps looking for research funding. He has done much in Tsinghua to catapult the school's drive in science research, and now he is also spearheading a new Institute of Advanced Studies in Hangzhou.

Pan, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China, is an expert on quantum communication and a member of the Chinese Academy of Science Centre for Excellence in Quantum Information and Quantum Physics.

He is the lead scientist behind the development of China's first quantum satellite, the Micius, which was successfully launched into space in June. The satellite is the foundation of the US$100 million Quantum Experiments at Space Scale program, one of several missions that China hopes will make it a space science power in the world.

Like Shi, Pan is also a sea turtle; he received his PhD from the University of Vienna, where he developed his work on quantum communication.

Xu, now a professor in Beijing University, is a relatively young mathematician who got his graduate training at Princeton, and is best known for his work in algebraic geometry.

All three work in basic science, on projects that are fundamentally important, but not expected to produce immediately applicable or commercializable products. Awarding the prize to them indicates to the country and the world that China recognizes the importance of basic science. In Hong Kong's fervor in encouraging tech transfer, we should always remember the importance of fundamental science, which not only reveals the workings of nature, but often leads to significant applications in the future.

Also, we should not distort the critical role of universities in conducting basic research and pressure professors to do tech transfer or commercializable research, based perhaps on a common misunderstanding of the delicate balance between basic and commercializable research that is needed to produce innovation and economic return to society.

To me, the significance of the award is not the amount of the monetary award, but the signal that it is sending to scientists around the world and in China that it is recognizing the importance of, and is investing in, basic science to achieve global leadership and should help recruit talents to work in China, as well as inspiring Chinese young talents to study STEM. This aspect should serve as an inspiration for Hong Kong, too.

It is also significant that the award is funded not by the state but by a number successful Chinese entrepreneurs, who themselves are recognized leaders globally. The donors include Tencent's Pony Ma, Sequoia's Neil Shen, Hillhouse Capital's Lei Zhang (who donated US$8.88 million to Yale in 2010), and Baidu's Robin Li.

I suspect many of these successful tech entrepreneurs fully appreciate that they have made their own fortunes based on fundamental science investments made by society years ago, and supporting this prize is one way to give back to society.

A golden age of science is looming in China.

Youngsters in Hong Kong should look at it as inspiration.

Tony Chan Fan-cheong is president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

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