Japan’s Nobel harvest spurs reflection

By Liu Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/9 0:38:40

China needs open research environment, emphasis on quality to catch up, say scholars

As applause from Japan and the international community engulfed biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi after he won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, bitter introspection lingered on China's social media with thousands of netizens questioning why China has been left behind by its neighbor in the sciences. 

Ohsumi, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discoveries on autophagy, a fundamental process cells use to degrade and recycle parts of themselves, making him the 24th Japanese or Japan-born Nobel laureate.

According to a statement from the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Ohsumi's work opened the path to understanding how cells adapt to starvation and respond to infection.

Ohsumi's win has not only drawn attention in Japan, but also sparked discussions on Chinese social media after many compared the number of Nobel science laureates in China and Japan.

According to the Nobel Prize website, Japan has garnered the second-highest number of science laureates after the US, with 11 physicists, seven chemists and four laureates for physiology or medicine.  

Last year, pharmacologist Tu Youyou won the physiology or medicine Nobel, the first Chinese scientist to win for work done in the Chinese mainland.

Research quality

Netizens are asking just why China is lagging so far behind Japan, and what can be done to improve the quality of scientific research in China.

Rao Yi, a neurobiologist at Peking University, was quoted by news website ifeng.com as saying that China's biomedical research is 10 years behind Japan's.

An article titled "Why Japan can win so many Nobel Prizes" on Sina Weibo has analyzed Japan's advantages in science, including cultivating children's independent spirit of exploration while at school and learning from developed countries.

The article had been viewed more than 1.23 million times as of press time.

Tang Yongliang, a deputy director with the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that Japan is reaping the benefits of prioritizing scientific development in the past decades and it has had a policy of personnel exchanges with developed countries in the most cutting-edge scientific fields. 

The open research environment in Japan, which encourages innovation and allows scientists to express different ideas, and highly advanced technology also contribute to scientific discoveries, Tang said.

Tang said that Japan's good social credibility system also helps to cement Japanese scientists' preciseness and persistence in science.

Optimistic future

Many netizens pointed out that China only started to develop strongly in science and technology from the 1990s onward, and research leading to Nobel awards often has been carried out two or three decades before. Some expressed hope that this would lead to a slew of Nobel Prizes from 2020 onwards, and that people should have more confidence.

This year's three physics laureates won for research they did in the 1980s and 1990s.

But Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the Global Times that it might be too optimistic on the part of netizens to say that there will be a surge in laureates by 2020.

"We should envisage our gap with Japan and other developed countries in an objective and reasonable way - admitting our deficiencies in the fundamental research fields," Xiong said. China has long prioritized research in applied science, such as engineering.

He added that China should pay more attention to investing in fundamental research and promoting the quality of research and development by giving more freedom to scientists.

"China sometimes emphasizes quantity rather than quality when appraising scientific endeavor, which may overlook that breakthroughs in science take a long time," Tang noted.  

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