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Hopkins Hosts Visiting Chinese Scientists

Science in China is booming. Through a new visiting scientist program, Johns Hopkins could help shape its future direction.

July 2011--China has more than 1.4 million scientists. The size of its research pool roughly tripled between 1998 and 2007. To scientists in the United States, those figures could represent a staggering level of competition, a threat to the stature of American science.

Or, viewed another way, they could offer a more positive opportunity—1.4 million potential research collaborators.

The designers of a new Chinese visiting scientist program at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences (IBBS) prefer the latter perspective. Called the IBBS-Fudan Scholars Program, it offers scientists at the start of their careers at Shanghai’s Fudan University the chance to spend one to three years supplementing their skills by working in a basic science lab at Hopkins. Fudan University pays for most of each visiting scientist’s salary, with the host principal investigator providing the rest. The plan calls for the IBBS to accept five to six new visiting scientists each year.

“The idea is to establish long-term collaborations,” says IBBS Director Steve Desiderio. “The hope is when they return to China, these scientists will establish projects related to the work they did in Hopkins labs and continue those collaborations.”

The Chinese, he says, are eager to learn how American science operates.

By some indicators, science in China is thriving. In the last two decades, that nation has significantly increased its research and development spending. The number of doctoral degrees China awards in science and engineering has climbed. And Chinese scientists publish more research articles than researchers in any other nation except the United States.

Given such marks of success, one might ask what Chinese scientists could gain from a sojourn in a U.S. lab.

But quantity is not the same as quality. For example, although they are publishing more, Chinese scientists are less successful at garnering acceptances in high-profile journals such as Science or Nature. And no scientist in the People’s Republic of China has received a Nobel Prize in science or medicine.

So some Chinese scientists would like to know what’s missing.

“When China sends its scientists overseas, it wants to understand how the U.S. R & D environment works—What’s that magic ingredient?” says Denis Fred Simon, vice provost for international affairs at the University of Oregon and a member of the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee on Science and Technology Cooperation with China. “Is it imbedded in the people? Is it imbedded in the system? Is it imbedded in the research culture?”

According to Simon, co-author of the book China’s Emerging Technological Edge: Assessing the Role of High-End Talent, that “magic ingredient” is not funding or infrastructure, but something more elusive, a concept he describes as innovative thinking.

In China, he says, “it is difficult to engage in lots of out-of-the-box thinking because of a general aversion to risk taking. Of course, there are exceptions, and we don’t want to discount the importance of these cases. However, on the whole, it has been tough for Chinese scientists to pursue breakthrough thinking for fear of failure and its sociocultural consequences.”

Chao Lu, an assistant professor of Physiology and Pathophysiology at Fudan University, is among the first group of visiting scholars. In China, Lu focused on studying the physiology of atherosclerosis using a mouse model. Now, as a visiting scientist in Desiderio’s lab, he is planning to study an aspect of genome instability that occurs in cancer, and to learn molecular techniques necessary for conducting such research. When he returns to China, says Lu, he will apply those same techniques to atherosclerosis studies.

In practical terms, says Lu, he is at Hopkins to develop his technical skills as well as learn how to write winning grant applications and papers that get accepted in top journals. At the same time, he says, he is eager to comprehend the “thinking” of scientists like his mentor Desiderio. He’s had a small taste of that already. After Lu sketched out his research plan, Desiderio asked him to describe what he would do if he got the results he expected and what he planned to do if his results differed from those he expected. In China, says Lu, scientists might analyze a problem that way, “but not so much.” It’s more common to consider what course of action to take after an unexpected result is observed. “Here,” he says, “there is more thinking ahead of time.”

In the short time he’s spent in the United States, says Lu, he’s noticed some other differences. There are more lab meetings, seminars and colloquia. Overall, he says, “the people here talk about issues in science research much more than in Fudan. In Fudan, there’s less cooperation between labs or Ph.D. students or faculty. Here, you can get help from other labs.”

But what does Hopkins get out of the bargain? Why should Johns Hopkins invest time and resources in this effort?

“We live in an era of globalization and collaboration,” says Simon. “The idea of research being a lone ranger activity is a 20th-century idea. The Chinese are bound to be players in the global system.” Now and in the future, curing diseases and addressing global pandemics will require scientific collaborations across the globe. So if American scientists can find opportunities to work with some of their 1.4 million counterparts in China, it benefits everyone.

Such relationships are part of Hopkins’s legacy, adds Paul Lietman, a professor of Medicine and Pharmacology who, along with Qi-qun Tang of Fudan University, proposed the scholars program. The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s connections with China date back to 1917, says Lietman, when Dean William Welch helped the Rockefeller Foundation transform Peking Union Medical College into an institution modeled after Johns Hopkins.

 “I believe Hopkins should be a leader in the world,” says Lietman, “training men and women in science and medicine in other countries. We should create a role for ourselves that’s broader than the United States.”

—Melissa Hendricks

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