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News analysis: Big prize builds on basic research
By Yan Xizao (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-10-08 11:23

It sounds like our scientists have narrowly missed this year's Nobel Prize in Physics.

The prestigious prize went to three Americans who found and explained that quarks, the particles that make up protons and neutrons, bind more closely together as they are pulled apart.

"We were doing basically the same, and earlier," said Chinese Academy of Sciences academician He Zuoxiu, the theoretical physicist who was among the country's quark research squad in the 1960s. "We were already very close to that outcome."

No doubt about it.

He and his Chinese co-researchers were the first in the world to establish the "quark model," a theoretical model essential for quantum colour dynamics.

That was in 1965.

Their finding received high acclaim from overseas colleagues at an international conference in Beijing in 1966.

But politics put an abrupt end to their smoothly proceeding studies.

He's team was disbanded and He was sent into a labour camp where disgraced intellectuals and officials were held in custody, when the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) began.

It makes no sense to conjecture whether or not He and his colleagues would have achieved what their American counterparts have done had it not been for the "cultural revolution."

While lamenting the unexpected termination of their project, He and his colleagues expressed profound appreciation and admiration of their American counterparts.

Instead of jealousy of their winning the prize, He and his co-workers envied their American peers for their fine research environment as well as personal patience and tenacity.

They did not conceal disappointment at the poor research environment and indifference to basic theoretical studies in this country.

That is a very real challenge our country has to squarely face.

Despite all the magnificent slogans like "rejuvenate the country with science and technology," this nation has overwhelmingly emphasized the technology side over the past decades.

At decision-making levels, the need of instant output boosters has cultivated a partiality for technologies that guarantee immediate results.

The increasingly pragmatic policy orientation inspired and magnified society-wide worship of immediate use values.

There are only cold shoulders for basic research projects, which more often than not take a longer time and yield little or no economic returns.

He is also worried about the supply of younger minds devoted to theoretical physics.

"Today's young people cannot sit long on 'cold benches,'" He bemoaned. "They are too fond of making money."

The drain of dedication and persistence is indeed a serious problem in our youth. But it is not fair to lay all the blame on them.

We should not expect them to be otherwise if they are immersed in short-sighted pragmatism throughout their socialization process.

If we want our youth to change, changes have to begin at government offices.

And the first change has to be in the official mind-set.

Basic studies are the mother of all technologies. They are therefore the basis of sustainable technological progress.

Such a relationship should be evident for Chinese eyes.

Numerous Chinese firms have thrived on assembling new- and high-tech products, like DVD players, for the world market.

But high patent fees have effectively throttled many of them, because all core technologies are in foreign hands.

In spite of their efforts to work out different formats and standards, such as EVD and its likes, none of them have been technologically tenable. That only demonstrates the astonishing impotence of Chinese firms in basic studies.

After DVD player manufacturers, domestic cellphone makers are suffering the very same.

We are guaranteed to see more of this until the country learns the worthiness of basic research.

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News analysis: Big prize builds on basic research



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