China’s big task for a scientist of ‘small things’

Stephen Chen
·5-min read

When Hou Jianguo takes on his next job, he will be assuming one of the world’s biggest roles in science.

Hou has been named the Communist Party secretary of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and will be the next president of the academy.

The chemist will oversee nearly 70,000 researchers. He will also have to take calls around the clock from the most powerful people in the country, and he will have to promote international cooperation amid boycotts, sanctions and suspicions.

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Hou will have to manage an organisation with an annual budget of nearly 100 billion yuan (US$15.2 billion), as well as research that runs the gamut from obscure flowering species in Africa to quantum computers and laser technology.

It is a big job that has been entrusted to a scientist who spent most of his life dealing with “small things”.

Born in 1959 in the small fishing town of Pingtan, in the southeastern province of Fujian, Hou began his working life as a fitter at a small factory fixing small machines.

He worked there for three years before winning a place to study chemistry at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province. As a physical chemist, he studied atoms, molecules and subatomic particles, manipulating them to create crystals and alloys.

He rose steadily through the university’s ranks to become its president in 2008, but he dined regularly with students, responding to their needs, according to a China Youth Daily report in 2015. Some students complained about summer heat, so he installed air conditioners in their classrooms. Some said they disliked public baths. He then put a hot water shower in every dormitory.

“He’s a man of details,” one of his former colleagues was quoted in the report as saying.

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At the time, Hou’s philosophy was that a research institute should not do everything. “Just do a small number of things and do it the best,” he said in a 2010 interview.

However, the CAS job is on a much grander scale. The exact number of employees is a secret but some estimates put it in the hundreds of thousands.

It also dwarfs in output other major science and technology players such as Harvard University, the Max Planck research institutes and MIT. In the year from August 2019, CAS researchers published 5,880 papers in leading journals, more than those from the Harvard and Max Planck institutes combined, according to Nature Index.

The tasks the researchers must confront are also huge – CAS has been asked to deal with almost every problem associated with its development. Air pollution? Build a smog tower to clean it up. Energy shortage? Try an artificial sun with nuclear fusion. Government corruption? Use artificial intelligence to monitor officials’ social activities. Covid-19? Develop vaccines, sequence the virus and trace its origin.

Bai Chunli has been president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences since 2012. Photo: Simon Song
Bai Chunli has been president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences since 2012. Photo: Simon Song

Under Bai Chunli, CAS president since 2012, the academy has made some significant gains, catching up with or even overtaking the United States, China’s biggest competitor, in some critical fields of research. These include building the world’s first quantum satellite, largest hypersonic wind tunnel, fastest supercomputer and biggest radio telescope.

The drive has put an enormous amount of pressure on the shoulders of scientists and engineers.

“Bai is a very kind person but he has no mercy when our performance failed to meet the expectation from the top,” said a Shanghai-based researcher who asked not to be named.

“In recent years we were busier than workaholics. I don’t have much to ask from the new chief, just hope he won’t make it worse.”

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Beijing is not letting up in its ambitions, with plans to turn China into a superpower of research and development. By 2030, many more areas in fundamental research and applied sciences should be on par with or overtaking the West.

In interviews over the years, Hou has said that researchers should have the freedom and resources to study what interests them most, and the government should not meddle in academic affairs.

But the higher he moved up in the administrative ladder, the more often he said that scientists should put national interest ahead of their personal considerations.

“The best inspiration comes from the biggest needs of our country,” he was quoted by People’s Daily as saying in 2016, when he was the deputy minister of science and technology.

Another challenge in Hou’s job will be the tensions between China and the US.

Hou is very familiar with the United States, having spent five years from 1991 studying and working there. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, a visiting scholar at Oregon State University and the leader of numerous Chinese science delegations to the US.

But there may be little he can do to overcome problems between Washington and Beijing.

Because of US sanctions, researchers in some CAS laboratories have not been able to buy essential instruments in recent years. Attending academic conferences in the US has also become a nightmare because of visa restrictions, and US national security concerns have put collaboration with US scientists under the microscope.

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Some of the most urgent tasks Hou will confront are much closer to home.

For years, many young scientists within the CAS system have complained that their meagre salaries barely cover housing, education and many other mundane needs, especially in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen where property prices are sky high.

A young scientist in Beijing said CAS dormitories were one solution but they could not live there forever.

“I have a wish list: an affordable place to live, a car, a girlfriend,” the scientist said.

They are problems that the details-oriented science administrator will have to draw on all his experience to solve.

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