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UPDATED: 15:24, July 26, 2004
China: how to seize "commanding point" of biotechnology
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"If China does not invest much capital in the field of biology and medicine, the discoveries in this field will go to other countries. Then if there is no intellectual property rights, China's medical cost will be higher and higher," said Robert Huber, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in an interview when he was attending the "Biotechnology Activity Week" in China. These words not only have a bearing on the health of the 1.3 billion Chinese people, but also make people feel that the tide of bio-economy is surging forward vigorously in the world.

Bio-economy is going to be another hit for economic growth following the network economy, and many countries are vying one after the other for controlling a commanding point in biotechnology and industry. What kind of opportunities and challenges China is going to get? How to seize the opportunities in future industry? Recently, Nobel Prize winners and Chinese scientists in the field of biological science gathered in Beijing offering advice and suggestions on China's biotechnology development.

Increase basic research input
"China's capital investment in the scientific research of life science is far from enough, and the government should create fine environment for the development of biotechnology industry, and mobilize all forces in the society to develop biotechnology and industry," said Ferid Murad, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Medicine. The bioscience and technology field is entering into a very exciting age, and the more input the capital and human resource, the higher the profits gained from it.

Nobel Prize winner, American physiologist Wiesel also expressed the same idea. He said that if China wished to gain progress in the front field of bioscience, a great deal of research and development cost must be put in

Relevant figures show that the scientific research outlay of American National Institute of Health reached 27 billion US Dollars in 2003, twice of the whole outlay of the scientific research in China. The expenditure in life science basic research by American government accounts for 0.3 percent of the country's GDP, while that of China is only 0.02 percent. In addition, in the USA, there are also 30 billion US Dollars coming from the industry circle and various foundations, however, China does not have such kind of expenditure resource.

A professor with American Cornell University, famous biologist Wurui called on the Chinese government to increase the budget for supporting basic scientific research. In the next 10-15 years, the proportion of basic scientific research on GDP should be increased gradually, and by 2020, the proportion of bio-scientific research on GDP should reach at least 0.1 percent.

Lin Wenjie, emeritus professor of Hong Kong University and Chinese Academy of Sciences, also showed much concern on the basic science. Patience is needed in treating science, he remarked. There is a long process from science to technology, and basic research will not be bound to bear fruit in a short period, however, it is because of many basic researches that enable us to achieve progress in technology.

"It is wrong for some universities to give up ordinary biology subjects and focus on biology engineering major." Zuo Tianjue, honorary chairman of Institute of International Development and Education in Agriculture and Life Sciences (IDEALS) came back to China for 110 times. In the light of the tendency emerging in domestic education, he pointed out that the scientific and technological capabilities of one country depends on both basic science and advanced technology, and neither is dispensable, instead, both of them should be emphasized, and only by doing so can it yield profits.

Lay special stress on supporting the field likely to be in the lead
"Father of cloned cow", Yang Xiangzhong, professor with American Connecticut State University also attended the media meeting in July 16 although he was suffering from cancer. He just wanted to convey one thing to the media: encourage China to vigorously carry out the research and development of therapeutic clone

According to Yang, because of reasons like religious belief, ethnical concept, it is very difficult for embryo biotechnology to develop in western countries, and tedious procedure for examination and approval is unbearable to many medicine companies, and even PPL Company who created Dolly sheep had to undergo listing sale. Currently, embryo technology research in western countries' laboratories focuses on animal model, while China has advantages for conducting human therapeutic clone, and is also possessed with a research environment that may be the most loose and have the most abundant resources. If Chinese government can provide policies and sufficient expenditure support, and create fine scientific research atmosphere, it is very hopeful for China to become the leading country in embryo biotechnology in the world.

"The limited expenditure to be used on the crucial point," Yang suggests that the usage of scientific research expenditure should be chosen carefully, and focus on the fields that are already prosperous and very likely to take the lead in the world. Never miss the golden opportunities, which also slip away in a flash.

In order to achieve mustering advantages and emphatic breakthrough, Wu suggests that the country set up a large-project team plan to support 80-100 important subjects on the bioscience front in the next 10 years, and introduce outstanding bio-scientists to strengthen the research forces. The research expenditure budget should be 10 years, and the amount should sufficient enough for each large-project team plan to attract at least 10 outstanding scientists to do co-research in 10 years.

Increase the number of high-output bio-scientists
Statistics show that according to the number of domestic bio-scientists, government-aided laboratories and treatises published in 2000, China and US are roughly the same; however, the number of influential research papers published by Chinese scholars in bioscience field is less than 4 percent of that of American scholars.

Facing this group of figures, Wu Rui said that shortage of high-output bio-scientists and insufficiency of scientific research expenditure certainly had something to do with the imperfection of project approval procedure and expenditure allocation system. Because of low expenditure support intensity and short support time span (2-3 years), most of the scientists only choose the projects that can easily bear fruit, however, this kind of research work is lacking in novelty and creativity. Consequently, most of the research papers are published on domestic magazines, and only a few of them are published on highly influential international ones.

As for how to solve the problem of the shortage of high-output bio-scientists in China, Wu held that, on the one hand the education system in China's institutions of higher learning should be improved to cultivate a lot of creative bio-scientists by themselves and on the other, sufficient expenditure, loose environment and flexible management should be availed to attract a large number of leading bio-scientists abroad to return China for service.

As bioscience is a field with many cross-disciplinary subjects, Wu Rui also suggested that China set up a new research fund similar to what the US do to encourage team research plan, and propose the bio-scientists to cooperate and exchange with the same occupation and share resources in order to produce highly influential research papers and achievements.

Reform the project approval system
In recent years, biological science and technology has drawn the attention of the public with its immense social influence. Some scientists are engrossed in media reports, and even turn things upside down to replace the publication of academic paper with media reports. "This is obviously unfavorable for China's scientific research to go worldwide," Yang remarks, "The development of science can never be severed from good environment and management and operation system. The country should establish a whole set of scientific approval system, and adopts international academic indexes such as the number of papers published, the quality of the papers and the prestige in the international academic circle for judgment. The same rule should be applied to the distribution of scientific research expenditure, rather than judge from the achievements appraisal meeting and news media.

As for the examination and approval of large projects, Wu recommend inviting a batch of qualified judges from abroad to be on the project approval commission, and making them accounting for more than half of the total. I'm very pleased to see that the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) has, since two years ago, begun to invite high-level judges to take part in the examination and approval work of some subjects in the Ministry of Life Science. I hope that the new approach for project approval can be extended to all the subjects of life science, and eventually extend to all the academic sections of sciences.

By People's Daily Online

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