An old Chinese proverb says: “If you’re planning for the year, cultivate rice; if you’re planning for the decade, cultivate trees; if you’re planning for the century, cultivate children.”
This remain as true today as it was back in the seventh century. But what it means to cultivate the next generation has changed. For young people to thrive in the modern world, a significant proportion of that cultivation must be immersion in scientific ideas. And to judge by its commitment to science and scientific education, China is making a serious investment in this long-term mission.
I recently returned from a tour of Chinese science institutions. What I saw was eye-opening. At each organization I visited, the story was the same: gleaming, brand-new facilities, state-of-the-art technology and a general sense of quiet focus on an important shared endeavor.
The numbers bear out what I saw. Over the last 30 years, China’s funding for research and development has grown by a factor of over a hundred—from just over $3 billion to over $400 billion. Indeed, the government recently has created a “mega-ministry” to streamline the funding process. The number of citations of Chinese scientists in quality publications is increasing rapidly: last year, for the first time they came out ahead of the United States in scientific publications—at least in terms of raw numbers—with 17,000 more papers produced.
The best Chinese scientists are also increasingly making their careers at home. Though there is still a strong appetite to gain experience in American and European laboratories, many postgraduates are now returning. At one of the life sciences institutes I visited, 69 out of 70 labs were headed by scientists of Chinese origin who have returned from Western institutions. As yet, the impact of the country’s researchers on the major science prizes has been relatively modest: for example, there have been five winners of the Nobel Prize (four in physics, one in physiology or medicine). But given the current trends, this can be expected to change rapidly.
One area where the United States is still well ahead is private investment—in particular philanthropic funding. Historically, this has been a key driver of scientific innovation. In the 19th century, the Cavendish family put their money into the laboratory in Cambridge, England that bears their name, which produced a series of revolutionary discoveries, from the neutron to the DNA double helix. In the same period the Rockefeller, Guggenheim and Carnegie fortunes supported groundbreaking scientists not just in America but internationally. Even in the second half of the 20th century, when grants from government institutions like the NIH became the central source of funding, philanthropy still played a major role.
China has a growing stock of billionaires—more than any other country—and according to Forbes is adding two more a week. But the large number of American university departments, research centers and other institutions that run on endowments, as well as non-profit research centers like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, are not yet mirrored in China.
Nor are there many equivalents of the charitable foundations set up by American high-net-worth individuals and families to advance scientific and technological solutions to global problems, such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Finally, we have yet to see Chinese entrepreneurs investing their personal fortunes in pioneering attempts to drive technological progress, as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are doing with their space ventures, Blue Origin and SpaceX.
There are signs, however, that this is changing. A group of Chinese tech entrepreneurs recently established the Future Science Prize, which celebrates physicists, life scientists, mathematicians and computer scientists who have made significant discoveries. It is modeled on the Breakthrough Prize (which—full disclosure—I help run), set up in 2012 by some of Silicon Valley’s top founders to raise awareness of the significance of fundamental science. Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, last year joined the Breakthrough Prize’s sponsors; and the prize organization is working with that of the Future Science Prize to launch a regional Chinese version of Breakthrough Junior Challenge, our science video competition for high-school students.
These new developments in Chinese science philanthropy are a healthy sign. The history of the last century shows that progress is most rapid when the scientific and educational ecosystem is welcoming to all three types of investment: public, private and non-profit.
China is undergoing a scientific renaissance. If the country continues to invest in cultivating the next generation of scientists and technologists, that renaissance is likely to pay off for all of us, in a large and growing contribution to human knowledge.