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China: Laureate labs strategy

EducationWorld April 2021 | International News

China is ramping up its efforts to poach Nobel laureates from universities around the world to establish laboratories in the country. But questions are being raised whether this initiative will have a trickle-down effect to boost basic scientific research.

After several cities across China embraced the idea, it received a major boost when Beijing said it would start recruiting laureates to run laboratories and innovation centres. The scheme is a key plank of the city’s next five-year plan, which was passed on February 27, and it will encourage other provinces to follow suit.

Beijing may be hoping to emulate the success of the south-eastern city of Shenzhen, which since 2016 has built 11 Nobel laureate labs in partnership with universities and companies, including the Grubbs Institute, named after the chemist Robert Grubbs and hosted by the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), and the Warshel Institute for Computational Biology named after the biochemist Arieh Warshel and hosted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Shenzhen offered initial funding of 100 million yuan (Rs.111 crore) to each lab on a renewable fixed-term agreement of five years with the laureate obliged to work there for “no less than 30 days per year”.

Ka Ho Mok, vice president and professor of comparative policy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, sees the Nobel initiative as being “part of China’s broader strategy to enhance its global competitiveness through research and the rise of science, along with other efforts including bringing back top Chinese graduates who have worked in major universities globally”.

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford University, agrees. “China uses foreign engagement not to borrow ideas from elsewhere, but to build its own capacity in basic sciences,” he says. “China’s basic science is now very strong in the physical sciences and is improving in biological and biomedical sciences, but there is always the hope… that more can be achieved at the highest level.”

Among the most prominent examples of laureate labs is the Shenzhen Geim Graphene Center, founded in 2017 at the Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School and named after Sir Andre Geim, who shared the 2010 physics Nobel for his work on graphene. The lab has more than 200 researchers, including Masters and Ph D students.

Wider debates within academic science question whether the Nobels reflect scientific excellence fairly, and highlight that a laureate’s best work is often several decades behind them by the time they are honoured.

(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education and The Economist)

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