“The Importance of Science and Technology for China”, Hunan University commencement (in English)

Hunan University commencement, June 17, 2002

Richard N. Zare
Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305-5080 USA

The Importance of Science and Technology for China (English)

My talk is titled “The Importance of Science and Technology for China.” Yet I begin not with what science can do for a nation, I begin personally  with what has drawn me personally to science. It is joy. I experience, quite selfishly and privately, joy when I engage in one of the greatest adventures of the mind: discovering how this wondrous world works.  Science may help a nation and the human race certainly it does, but I do science because, simply, it is so much fun.  I cannot resist its challenges. For me, this passion has become a lifetime addiction. But I am here to talk to you not about my addiction but rather on a larger and more difficult topic, the future of science and technology in China.

From 1992 to 1998 I had the privilege of serving on the US National Science Board. From 1996 through 1998 I was its Chair.  This board is the policy-making body of the US National Science Foundation (NSF). In my country, the NSF supplies the majority of support for research in the physical sciences done at American universities. The National Science Board not only sets various funding policies for the NSF, it also oversees its activities. In addition, the board received a mandate, when it was created, to report to our President and to our Congress on the state of health of the scientific enterprise.  Consequently, the board has been much concerned about US science policy.

It would be presumptuous of me to believe that my service on the National Science Board gives me special insight into the needs of any other country.  Therefore, let me acknowledge at once how uncomfortably aware I am that they may not apply as well as they should to the situation in China.  Still, I wish to speak here briefly on China’s becoming a world leader in science. There is no question that China is one of the most important nations in the world. Yet, for China to take its rightful place as a world leader in science, some difficult choices must be made.

How does one measure the real wealth of a nation? I look to two factors.  The first is the spirit of the culture, the vision of the people.  The second is the means to build a future, the means that enable a vision to be realized.

A society needs three things to advance:

  • The first is security – to defend itself against both internal and external threats to its individuals and to the entire society, so that the people are free to pursue their goals.
  • The second is the economy – to produce goods for consumption, provide services, and improve the overall quality of life for its citizens.
  • The third is education – to prepare its citizens so they can benefit from what is already known and even add to the world’s body of knowledge.

Science and engineering contribute in major ways to all three things. Who can doubt that mastery of science and technology is vital in making China prosperous? Chinese culture and tradition have valued education for thousands of years.  But the reason for that valuing has changed.  In the past, people wished to be educated so they could acquire a position in the government.  But over the last hundred years, people have become more and more conscious of science and technology and how its power, when used well, can strengthen a country and realize the dreams of a people.

Let us look at Russia. The Soviet Union possessed a vigorous scientific establishment, but it was undermined by a weak economy. A major problem was the separation of science and technology from production. Poor management and labor-intensive, capital-intensive, low-efficiency organizations severely weakened the national economy. The overriding Soviet goal of military strength resulted in the neglect of civilian research and development. Those Soviet research workers who were drawn to basic research often neglected the applied research that is needed for economic growth. Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the worsening of its economy forced many Russian scientists and engineers to quit research or even emigrate.

In contrast, the transfer of American resources from weapons development to economic development is significantly boosting American competitiveness in the world market. The United States is trying to maintain steady economic growth, create jobs, and protect the environment. We hope to make our government more efficient to meet public needs and to preserve America’s leading position in the world in basic science. That position has given new energy to the powerful engine of American technology. Where I work and live at Stanford University, many discoveries in the laboratory can be rapidly transformed into commercial products. The free marketplace we have for ideas, the acceptance of the work of all people, and the ability to take business risks accelerate this transfer.

How is China to take advantage of these historical precedents? The United States was not always a leader in the sciences. In the early part of the twentieth century, we lagged behind Germany. We adopted the policy of sending to Germany many of our best graduate students. These students, when they returned to us, unquestionably laid the foundation for many great discoveries and technical industries in our country. Might a similar plan work for China?

Soon you are graduating, and yet you have only begun your education, for education is a lifetime pursuit.  In this pursuit, many of you will consider studying abroad and taking advantage of the rich opportunities available in well-established scientific/engineering communities in other nations, the United States among them.  I urge you to do that.  At the same time, I urge you to think what you can do for China, because your country needs your talents to assume its leadership role among the nations of the world. Since the 1970s, according to the People’s Daily, over 400,000 Chinese students have studied abroad. Ninety percent of them received master’s degrees or doctorates. Some 140,000 Chinese students have returned to China after studying overseas. Nearly 4,000 new enterprises have been established here by these students, with a total output value exceeding 10 billion yuan. This result may be encouraging by some measures, but more needs to be done to make China an inviting place for the return of its trained scientists.  Specifically, it is important that China create more opportunities for its talented young people to return to Chinese universities and to Chinese industry with the means to carry out first-class research.  To create those opportunities will require great investment and sacrifice, but such a policy will reward the nation with greatness. China must support its young scientists and engineers to become the leaders of tomorrow.

It is time to stop viewing the world so much in terms of nation-states.  As we become wiser, we realize that we are living together on one fragile planet and that it is one interconnected world.  Let us strive to become members of the global community of scholars. Science by its very nature bridges national boundaries. Researchers know the players and experts in their field, no matter what the country of origin, the culture, or the language in which those colleagues work. This international scientific bonding has accelerated with the information revolution.

I stand before the best and brightest students in China. Hunan is well known for “outstanding people and magic land” (“Ren Jie Di Ling” in Chinese).  Many leaders came from Hunan in Chinese history, and they changed not only China but also the world. I expect the new graduates here will continue that proud tradition, largely through science and technology in this new era for China. Let me offer my congratulations to this graduating class of Hunan University.

In closing, I admit that knowledge alone is not enough to make a better world.  Knowledge must be combined with values and dreams. Only if there are values and dreams can science and engineering lead to human progress. It is your challenge, Hunan University Class of 2002, to make China and this entire world a better place than you have found it.

I wish you well in your journeys through life.

Chinese Translation

Pictures from Hunan University

From left to right: 1st row: Prof. Hailong Wu, Prof. Minwei Han (Singapore National U.), Prof. Shuming Nie (Emory), Mrs. Susan Zare, Prof. Zare, Prof. Kemin Wang, Prof. Weihong Tan (U. of Florida and Hunan U.), Ms. Weijun Chen (U. of Florida), Prof. Du Li 2nd row: Ms. Xiaoxiao He, Ms. Qiuping Guo, Ms. Xiangxian Meng, Ms. Hongmei Huang, Ms. Ping Wu, Ms. Chunmei He, Ms. Jinhua Duan, Ms. Qin Wang, Ms. Yan Jin 3rd row: Ms. Lingfeng Liu, Mr. Zhezhong Chen, Ms. Jiaofeng Peng, Mr. Mingbin Zheng, Dr. Xiaohai Yang, Dr. Jun Li, Mr. Xinbin Zuo, Mr. Feng Feng, Mr. Bin Liu, Ms. Yuefen Yin All others are from Hunan University.