May 16, 2005
Volume 83, Number 20
pp. 47-48

Society plans to waste no time in launching joint programs with emerging scientific powerhouse


China is turning into a scientific and industrial superpower at a blazing pace, and the time for the American Chemical Society to set up joint programs is now, ACS leaders believe. A team from ACS took the exceptional step of visiting Beijing and Shanghai for 10 days in April to identify ways the society can collaborate with Chinese scientific organizations.

BREAKING DOWN WALLS Burke climbs the Great Wall with ICCAS professor Liu Minghua.
"It's been increasingly clear that China and its scientists are major players on both the scientific front and the industrial front," Madeleine Jacobs, ACS's executive director and chief executive officer, says. "If we don't open doors and take advantage of getting to know our Chinese counterparts, the U.S. ultimately will be less competitive in the world," she adds.

Journal of the American Chemical Society Editor Peter J. Stang, who made use of his relationship with senior scientists in China to facilitate the trip, says, "Chinese chemists are already world-class in some areas." He says China now ranks fourth in terms of total number of papers published from outside the U.S. in the 34 ACS journals and magazines, after Japan, Germany, and the U.K. Stang is convinced that, within 15 years, China will be the leading contributor of papers originating outside the U.S. Jacobs credits Stang for bringing to her attention last year the urgency for ACS to engage China.

In addition to Jacobs and Stang, the 11-member ACS delegation included ACS President William F. Carroll; ACS Board of Directors Chair James D. Burke; ACS Past-President Elsa Reichmanis; University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry and biochemistry professor Joan S. Valentine, editor of Accounts of Chemical Research; and C&EN Editor-In-Chief Rudy M. Baum. The members of the U.S. delegation, many of whom were in China for the first time, visited labs, attended lectures, asked and answered countless questions, met government officials, and considerably improved their understanding of the state of chemistry in China.

The main hosting organization for the ACS delegation in Beijing was the Institute of Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences (ICCAS), a top institution whose researchers regularly contribute to international journals. Evidently delighted by the ACS visit, ICCAS put much effort into arranging useful meetings.

The delegation visited the Natural Science Foundation (NSFC), which is China's equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation; the Ministry of Science & Technology (MOST); Beijing's Tsinghua University; Peking University; the China Association for Science & Technology (CAST); the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC); and a high-tech industrial park in Shanghai. At CAST, the delegation met with the group's president and with Deng Nan, the daughter of China's past leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng Nan is a director of CAST. Bai Chun Li, president of the Chinese Chemical Society and a vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, made time to meet the ACS team, joining it for dinner even though he had just returned from a trip to the U.S. the previous night.

LEARNING Reichmanis (from left), Burke, and Carroll listen to a poster presentation by ICCAS professor Wang Yilin, who explains her current research.

THE DELEGATION was impressed. "China has come out of the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution to become a home for basic research in all disciplines," Burke observes. Achieving its current status was not easy for China. During the Cultural Revolution, a political upheaval that went on from 1966 to 1976, universities were mostly closed in China and few people could go abroad. This was a period when people now aged 50 to 60 would have been in graduate school. As a result, most chemistry faculty members in China are below the age of 50. A few years ago, China launched the "100 Talent" program to encourage eminent Chinese academics abroad to return to the motherland.

There are about 117,000 doctoral students in China. It is unclear how many are studying chemistry, but a single organization, the top-ranked Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, has 400 Ph.D. students. There are dozens of chemistry Ph.D.-granting institutions in China, several with hundreds of doctoral students.

School labs vary in quality. At ICCAS, the labs are untidy, some students do not wear protective glasses when performing reactions, and a few powerful lasers are set up unsafely at eye level. At SIOC, on the other hand, facilities are comparable with the ones at good schools in the U.S. Construction programs are under way at several Chinese schools to expand and upgrade facilities.

Even though it is rapidly advancing, chemistry in China faces numerous challenges, some of which are similar to those that chemistry in the U.S. faces, the delegation found. For example, there is a growing trend among the top students to study business instead of science. The image of chemistry in China is also being negatively affected by industrial accidents.

But several of China's chemistry challenges are specific to the country. For example, chemistry faculty privately complained to members of the delegation that their research funding is to a disproportionate extent linked to their ability to publish in international journals like JACS or Nature. One Chinese chemist observed that to get funding, it was preferable to publish in JACS, even if he personally thought the Journal of Physical Chemistry was more relevant to his area of research.

GETTING TOGETHER Jacobs (from left), Stang, ICCAS Director Wan Li-Jun, and Cheng chat after a meeting in Beijing.

Members of the ACS delegation were impressed by the passion for chemistry that students at Peking University expressed, a feeling that is becoming rarer in the U.S., according to one delegate. "I chose chemistry because it is a prosperous and promising science," Cong Huan, a third-year undergraduate said. Cong was admitted to Peking, a highly coveted school, because he had represented China at the International Chemistry Olympiad. Valentine observed that the Chinese graduate students she had overseen at UCLA had been remarkably good. This is partly because China's education is very competitive and only the best of the best earn scholarships to study abroad, Chinese scientists explained.

One challenge that ACS faces in enlarging exchanges with China is that students and schools in the U.S. do not appear to place a high priority on international exchanges. Burke pointed out in a speech at NSFC that 99% of U.S. students have never studied abroad and that 80% of U.S. colleges have never collaborated internationally.

Jacobs, however, expects that ACS's new programs with China will be popular. "ACS has a very heterogeneous membership, so it's certainly possible that we have some members who believe that we should focus all of our attention on the U.S.," she says. But members will find out that there are benefits to exchanges with China, including possible employment opportunities. "China has a large and growing talent pool, but the country will be seeking talent from all over the world," she notes. Meanwhile, she adds, the U.S. is falling behind European countries in establishing joint programs with China.

It is not clear what the new programs will be. Preliminary discussions with Chinese counterparts indicated their interest in a joint symposium for young chemists similar to a program that ACS has with Germany. Great care will have to go into the planning because, for instance, Chinese scientists have faced new difficulties since 2001 in obtaining visas to visit the U.S., Jacobs says. As for other programs, ACS will, when possible, take advantage of work that has already been done by other organizations. "We will also be working with NSF and other organizations in the U.S., such as the National Academy of Sciences, which already have cooperative arrangements in China," she adds.

On the Chinese side, there is a high level of interest in cooperating with ACS, especially in ways in which Chinese scientists are contributors in a joint endeavor instead of merely learning from the U.S. At MOST in Beijing, Vice Minister of Science & Technology Cheng Jing-Pei noted that "too many Americans have a [backward] view of China." As China emerges as a science superpower in the next two decades, this view will change. And ACS will play a role in helping its members be involved as China progresses.

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