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Time to turn attention to science & technology
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By Rao Yi and Shi Yigong 

The authors are professors respectively with Peking University and Tsinghua University. The article is reprinted from Global Times.

In the 29th Olympics in Beijing, China outnumbered the United States by snatching more than 10 percent of the total gold medals. That could serve as a persuasive testimony that the country has pushed itself to the list of the world's top sports powers. Compared with its marvelous sports performance, China, however, has achieved far less recognition in science. It has never won a Nobel Prize, a top prize gauging one's contribution to the world in a certain realm, still far behind Britain, Germany and Japan, not to mention the US.

Over the past years, China has made great headway both in sports and science. In its first participation in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, the country dispatched a six-member delegation, with only one athlete to compete. 52 years later in the 23rd Olympics in the same city, China's athletes bagged a total of 15 gold medals, marking the country's gradual advancement to the circle of athletics powers. In the 2004 Athens Olympics China was second only to the US in the gold table, and it has a overwhelming superiority to other countries in gold medal in this year's Beijing Olympics, which further consolidated the country's status in the world's sports.

In the realm of science, China, however, has not established an international status proportionate with its comprehensive national strength. At many international academic conferences or in many influential international academic magazines, our Chinese scholars have had only a very limited influence.

In the world's 20th congress of genetics convened in Berlin in July, for instance, none of the 12 keynote speakers were from China, and only two Chinese participants were invited to deliver speeches, 1.2 percent of the total 168 speakers. Also in the world-renowned magazine The Cell, no Chinese scholar published an article from 1981 to 2004.

Like sports, boosting science also needs substantial policy support. In recent years, the government has increased financial input in science and technology, but their smooth development will continue to be hindered by bottlenecks if no improvements are made in the problematic fund-distribution mechanism.

The belief is still deeply rooted in the minds of many people that distribution of the funds on scientific research is used as a tool to balance the interests of different groups, but not as one to boost scientific development and technological invention. To change the long-prevailing mindset, relevant authorities should get the point that the money should flow to the groups of people who can really contribute to the country's scientific advancement. Now it is difficult to imagine that our athletic sports could have achieved such prominent progress if the country's funds invested in sports were not used to cultivate excellent sportsmen.

Science and sports, by nature, have a common goal and standard. That is both aim to reach the world's top level under internationally recognized standards. China's sports have held on to exactly this model, thus resulting in its rapid development in recent years.

In science, on the other hand, a different development mode has been adopted and the domestic criteria are used to replace international ones. A particular example is that the appointments to the title of "academicians", a top title both in honor and economic treatment, which is awarded to people not completely in accordance with their contribution to the world's frontier sciences.

Another distinct difference between sports and science is that the level of the former cannot be raised indefinitely, thus leaving space for less developed countries to catch with up advanced ones. But this is not applicable to science. With scientific and technological advancement happening almost on daily basis, a slow progress made by a country also means its regression in this field compared with other ones. A country underdeveloped in science could catch up with developed ones through utmost persistence and long-term accumulation.

In sports people can only make slow improvement when they reach a certain level, and even come to a standstill for a long time, given that even specially trained athletes cannot surpass the physical limits. Science is totally different with the world's science and technology leaping forward every day. People even cannot predict the boundary of scientific and technological progress.

Now that China is in a period of steady economic development, we should not let slip the historical chances for scientific development. Instead we should lay out a reasonable program for scientific, technological and educational development in order to advance the country's science forward in as short a period of time as possible.

We should work harder to develop into a scientific and technological world power through improving our financial input, talents cultivation and research mechanism. With added scientific research funds, we should absorb more talents and promote its system reform just like what we have done in the sports field.

Over the past three decades, China has cultivated a solid base for scientific and technological talents worldwide. But some of them, because of mastering internationally applicable know-how, have chosen to stay overseas. Thus, we should encourage those with an aspiration to serve the motherland to return, and at the same time, create a favorable environment for domestic scientific and technological personnel to play their part.

In pursuing the reform of the scientific research and development system, we should set up a department that is independent of group interests and can coordinate and monitor the country's overall scientific development.

To raise the country's scientific status in the international society will not only boost national confidence, but also produce an inestimable role in the country's social development. All these can serve as a necessary groundwork for the resurrection of the Chinese nation.

(China Daily September 3, 2008)

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