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Science & Technology

January 5, 2009
Volume 87, Number 01
pp. 27-29

A Science Academy Like No Other

Taiwan's Academia Sinica addresses challenges in an effort to attract best students, faculty

Stu Borman

WOULDN'T IT BE NICE to find a Shangri-La of scientific environments where you could go to get your graduate degree, do postdoctoral work, or pursue an academic career in an idyllic research atmosphere with few worries? Imagine it. It would be the premier research institution in the country, with world-class equipment and where money was not really an obstacle. And while we're at it, let's give it a somewhat undiscovered and uncrowded character so that students and faculty alike would get virtually unfettered access to all of the advanced instrumentation and facilities.

Palm trees line a street on Academia Sinica's campus. Academia Sinica
Shangri-La Palm trees line a street on Academia Sinica's campus.

If you're studying science or pursuing a science career and you happen to be from Taiwan, you probably already know that this place is not just a daydream. Academia Sinica, the national academy of sciences of Taiwan, in Taipei, approaches the Shangri-La ideal.

Outside Taiwan, Academia Sinica's charms are not as well-known. But the institution is trying to raise its profile so it can attract the best students and researchers from all over the world. You don't even have to speak Chinese to go there—although it wouldn't hurt if you did. The academy isn't quite Shangri-La, but it is taking steps to get as close as it can to achieve that mythical level of perfection.

"It's hard to find an institution like Academia Sinica anywhere in the world," Vice President Andrew H.-J. Wang told C&EN during a recent visit to the campus. "It's a national academy, and yet we do research here—not only in science but also in humanities and social sciences. It's not a university, yet we have students here. So it's kind of a strange combination."

Academia Sinica, which means "Chinese Academy," was founded in Nanking in 1928. Last year marked the academy's 80th anniversary. In December, to honor this anniversary, Academia Sinica hosted the Academy Presidents' Forum, attended by presidents of national academies of science from all over the world, including Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

In 1949, when the government of the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek, moved from mainland China to Taipei during the Chinese civil war, Academia Sinica was reestablished there. It advanced slowly in its first few decades in Taiwan, but the academy's star began to rise more rapidly beginning in 1994, when physical chemist Yuan-Tseh Lee became its eighth president. Lee was the first Taiwanese-born winner of a Nobel Prize???a shared chemistry prize in 1986 with Dudley Herschbach and John C. Polanyi for their "contributions to the dynamics of chemical elementary processes." During Lee's 12-year tenure as president, the academy's annual budget tripled???a feat physics professor Yuh-Lin Wang, director of the Institute of Atomic & Molecular Sciences, attributed to Lee's "great effort to communicate with the government and taxpayers of Taiwan" about the importance of making Academia Sinica a world-class research institution.

The academy's ninth president, carbohydrate chemist Chi-Huey Wong, is now continuing those efforts to boost Academia Sinica's reputation and funding. In 2003, Lee recruited Wong to be the first director of the academy's Genomics Research Center (GRC). The center opened formally in 2005, and in a decision by Academia Sinica's board of directors that ended up keeping a top-notch chemist at the helm, Wong succeeded Lee as president the following year.

Academia Sinica's coveted funding comfort is a consequence of its direct connection to the top tiers of the Taiwanese government: Wong reports directly to the president of Taiwan, Ying-jeou Ma. The academy is funded directly by the Taiwan president's office, after approval by congress. "The funding is healthy, and the facilities are outstanding," Wong said. "It's a nice environment—the best place in Taiwan for those interested in research."

The academy's 2008 budget was about $450 million in U.S. dollars and is slated to grow 6% in 2009 to about $477 million. This represents about 12% of the annual research and development budget of Taiwan.

That money sustains a sizable institution. Academia Sinica has 775 principal investigators, 677 postdocs, 1,025 Ph.D. students, 808 master's degree students, and 72 undergrads. Its 24 institutes and seven research centers are organized into three divisions: Mathematics & Physical Sciences, which includes the Institutes of Chemistry and Atomic & Molecular Sciences; Life Sciences, including the Institutes of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Biology; and Humanities & Social Sciences, which includes the Institutes of History & Philology, Ethnology, Modern History, and Economics.

Academia Sinica's generous funding has enabled it to develop impressive facilities and instrumentation at its many scientific institutes and centers. For example, GRC's Chemical Biology division has a 2 million-compound library and a Novartis high-throughput robotic facility that can screen the compounds at a rate of 1 million compounds per day for binding to important biological targets. GRC Director Chung-Hsuan (Winston) Chen noted that only four other organizations worldwide have this type of facility.

Another healthy dose of money has gone into Academia Sinica's Institute of Biomedical Sciences, which has a genotyping facility that carries out large-scale genetic studies. "An ongoing pilot project at the facility aims to study 200,000 Taiwanese subjects for 10 to 20 years to try to find genetic and environmental disease associations," said Yuan-Tsong Chen, the institute's director.

And the academy's Institute of Physics has a large and sophisticated clean room that supports research in nanoscience, nanotechnology, and related areas.

In addition to being a research institution, Academia Sinica is its country's national academy of sciences, and it's a high honor to be selected to be an academy member there. Currently, there are 247 academy members???two-thirds of whom are Taiwanese scientists living in the U.S., five of whom are Nobel Laureates, and 26 of whom are U.S. National Academy of Sciences members. The academy also recently began to elect foreign members, of which there are currently eight, including molecular biologists and Nobel Prize winners Phillip A. Sharp of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and David Baltimore of California Institute of Technology; National Academy of Engineering President Charles M. Vest; and Lee Hartwell, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle. "So this is a very prestigious academic institution and one that is very international," Wong said.

IN ITS ROLE as Taiwan's national academy of sciences, Academia Sinica is responsible for studying key national issues and reporting on them to the government, much as the National Research Council does in the U.S. "We just issued a report on energy that was well received," Wong said. "The government can use that information for policy-making. Our next report will be on health care." But whereas NRC does not itself carry out the scientific research it relies on in its reports, Academia Sinica does.

Students pursue a research project in the Institute of Physics' clean room facility. Stu Borman/C&EN
Cleaned Up Students pursue a research project in the Institute of Physics' clean room facility.

A recent Academia Sinica report analyzed factors that affect academic competitiveness in research and identified areas that Taiwanese academic institutions need to strengthen. "From that analysis, we found the quality and impact of Academia Sinica publications to be pretty good," Wong said, noting that the report rated his institute's publications as "the best of all other areas where Chinese scholars are prevalent: Hong Kong, Singapore, and mainland China."

Indeed, over the years, academy scientists have been responsible for a number of notable research achievements. Just last year, for example, Academia Sinica immunologist and microbiologist Shie-Liang Hsieh and coworkers, including Wong, discovered the receptor for dengue virus, the cause of dengue fever (Nature 2008, 453, 672). The virus infects about 50 million people and causes about 20,000 deaths per year worldwide. Currently, no specific vaccines or therapies exist, and the receptor's discovery could help lead to such treatments.

A few years ago, Hong-Shi Kuo, Ing-Shouh Hwang, and Tien T. Tsong of the Nanoscience & Nanotechnology Core Facility at Academia Sinica's Institute of Physics and coworkers developed a quick electrochemical method for making single-atom tips for electron microscopy (Nano Lett. 2004, 4, 2379). "It used to be very difficult to make stable and robust single-atom tips," institute professor Ting-Kuo Lee said. With the new electrochemical plating and thermal faceting process, "tips can now be made into a stable pyramidal shape, usually in less than an hour, and are also very easy to repair," he said.

Also in recent years, an Academia Sinica team identified a gene that puts people at risk for Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS), a serious disorder of the skin and mucous membranes. The disease is often a side effect of treatment with drugs, such as the seizure and pain medication carbamazepine. Institute of Biomedical Sciences Director Yuan-Tsong Chen and coworkers found that those Asians with a gene for a specific human leukocyte antigen have a 2,000-fold higher risk of developing carbamazepine-induced SJS than Asians lacking that gene (Nature 2004, 428, 486). "The U.S. Food & Drug Administration and Taiwan's department of health relabeled carbamazepine based on our finding, and some doctors now prescreen patients of Asian descent" for that gene before administering the drug, Chen said.

"There are students here, but they have to be associated with other institutions and work with our research fellows."

Chen and his team also showed recently that SJS progresses rapidly and often with unfortunate severity because of an immune system component: A patient's immune cells release the small molecule granulysin, which then attacks patients' skin and mucosal cells (Nat. Med. 2008, 14, 1343).

Academia Sinica's students play a key role in such research discoveries, as is the case at other research institutions. At the academy's various institutes, the ratio of Ph.D. students and postdocs to faculty is currently an average of 2:1. Academia Sinica administrators would like to boost this ratio considerably by attracting more students to the campus.

Yet the academy is not a school. To maintain its own student body, therefore, it has to collaborate with other Taiwanese universities. "We don't officially have students," Wong said. "There are students here, but they have to be associated with other institutions and work with our research fellows who have joint appointments at universities."

"RECRUITING THE BEST students to Academia Sinica has been a challenge," said Yu-Tai Tao, director of the academy's Institute of Chemistry. "Academia Sinica has better facilities and financial support than the best Taiwanese universities. But because we're not an educational institution, we can't have our own graduate program. We can only go through other universities, which are not so willing to share grad students with us because then their own professors will have fewer workers. So it's a very delicate process."

The Taiwan International Graduate Program (TIGP) was established to help address the student recruitment challenge. TIGP students—who currently number 246 and hail from 28 countries—are the closest thing to Academia Sinica's own students. Under TIGP, students apply directly to Academia Sinica. If accepted, the academy gives them full fellowships, currently about $1,050 (in U.S. dollars) per month. However, TIGP students also have to establish an affiliation with a Taiwanese university from which they earn their degree.

TIGP offers advanced interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs, with all-English teaching and research environments. Academy officials hope TIGP will help strengthen graduate education in Taiwan and attract a growing number of students who can become internationally competitive.

Traditionally, most Taiwanese students begin their college educations in Taiwan but go to the U.S. to get their Ph.D.s. This was the case for Wong, who got his B.S. and M.S. degrees from National Taiwan University, in Taipei, but earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at MIT.

Sample trays in the Genomics Research Center's robotic drug screening unit. Stu Borman/C&EN
High-Throughput Sample trays in the Genomics Research Center's robotic drug screening unit.

The tendency of Taiwanese students to leave the country is beginning to ease off. "Not as many students are going out," Institute of Biological Chemistry Director Ming-Daw Tsai said. He attributes this trend to improved curriculums and stipends and a greater campuswide emphasis on teaching and writing.

Attracting the best faculty members has also posed challenges. "A weak point is salaries," Wong said. "Academic salaries are relatively low in Taiwan, compared with places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and even Korea." At Academia Sinica a full professor currently earns the equivalent of about $54,000 annually, and an assistant professor gets about $40,000. These salary levels are fixed by the government. "If we want to attract outstanding scholars, we will have to be more competitive in salary," Wong said.

One way Academia Sinica already competes effectively is to hire highly accomplished scientists as Distinguished Research Fellows, equivalent to distinguished professors in the U.S. "That rank is the highest in the academy, and there is no salary limit," Wong noted. "The salary is negotiable and depends on the individual. Distinguished Research Fellow salaries are, therefore, competitive with those in the U.S." This option is available only to scientists with high levels of achievement—such as Andrew Wang, an expert in structural biology who was formerly a professor of biophysics, biochemistry, and chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Ming-Daw Tsai, a noted structural biologist and enzymologist who is a former professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ohio State University.

But even for those with fixed salaries, there are compensations. Taipei real estate is expensive, but the academy provides subsidized apartments for many professors. "We're continuing to build dormitories, and hopefully any professor who wants a subsidized apartment will eventually have one," Wong said.

Furthermore, "if your salary in Taiwan is half what it would be in the U.S., it would actually be equivalent in value," Wong said. This is because of the academy's housing assistance and Taiwan's lower taxes, transportation, and medical insurance costs. "In Taiwan, even though it's a big burden on the government, everybody is covered for medical care," Wong noted.

Another challenge in recruiting professors to Taiwan is the language barrier. "Taipei looks cosmopolitan, but unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, most people here don't speak English," said Wang, the academy's vice president. "At Academia Sinica, we try very hard to conduct things in English. But there are limitations. For example, all official documents and memos still have to be in Chinese. That's the kind of problem we have to overcome."

Some faculty candidates are also put off by the awkward political status of Taiwan. After the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, Taiwan initially represented all of China in the United Nations. But in the 1970s, many countries, including the U.S., shifted recognition from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China (mainland China), and Taiwan was ousted from the U.N. The U.S. and many other countries have continued social, economic, and defense ties with Taiwan, but the country's status remains tenuous.

That's one problem Academia Sinica administrators can't fix. But they have more control of their campus, which they're planning to expand. "We have only about 38 hectares," or 94 acres of land, Wang said, "and Chi-Huey was able to convince the government to give us another 25 hectares," or 62 acres. That area will mostly be for life sciences expansion—facilities for biology, translational medicine, and international studies, plus an incubation center for biotechnology and additional housing units."

To what extent Academia Sinica officials ultimately succeed in recruiting the best students and faculty to their Taipei-based Shangri-La remains to be seen. But if they don't meet their own expectations, it won't be for lack of trying. If Wong and his associates have anything to say about it, this "Lost Horizon" will soon be found.

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