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Exploring the Frontiers of Science in Western China

Scientific career opportunities are materializing across China. Here’s a look at what’s happening in the western region.

China's remarkable economic rise is also propelling advances across the sciences, and these intertwined trends are transforming the western section of the country. To speed up this transformation, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), universities, and the central government are all creating award schemes aimed at attracting leading scholars trained abroad to take up positions in western China. Science centers across the region are ramping up efforts to make research teams more innovative and more international. This strategy extends to the spheres of genomics, medicine, geoscience, astronomy, physics, and conservation and is creating professional openings across the western sector of China. By Kevin Holden

China's evolution into an economic superpower is advancing simultaneously with a global rise in scientific research. Research funding distributed by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) is expanding rapidly, in step with campaigns to attract Chinese scientists who have obtained advanced degrees abroad. The foundation, which was established with an annual budget of 80 million yuan (~US$13 million) in 1986, saw that figure balloon to 2 billion yuan in 2003 (~US$325,000), and to 23.8 billion yuan (~US$3.87 billion) in 2013, according to the group's annual report. One quarter of the foundation's annual funding is channelled into its Talent Training Program, which is aimed at cultivating leading professionals and research groups.

"Earth, ecological, and environmental sciences are all on the rise."

Kang Shichang

The head of the NSFC, Yang Wei, said in an interview with Science magazine in 2013 (scim.ag/1y4rFhc) that the foundation's funding is projected to continue increasing steeply in the future. "China has to transition from an economic powerhouse to a technological powerhouse and then to a scientific and cultural powerhouse," he said. "To achieve this goal, we will need many scientists, and we need to convince the government that it should provide more funding to the NSFC."

The NSFC president is just one of the key figures across China who are helping push the sciences forward, in part through the proliferation of awards aimed at enticing leading scholars—both Chinese expatriates and international scientists—to relocate to China. The drive to advance research has generated an array of opportunities for scientists—a growing number of which are spread out across the western Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Gansu.

Sichuan, in southwest China, is home to 80 million people. The region has seen a surge in research focused on restoring and preserving ecosystems (due to its expanding population and a massive 2008 earthquake) and on the life sciences, such as genomics and medicine. The capital city of Chengdu is dotted with ancient temples and teahouses, but also holds a cluster of some of China's newest universities, including the Chengdu University of Technology, a science and engineering school that hosts more than 32,000 students and over three dozen research institutes.

In northwestern China's Gansu Province—part of the ancient Silk Road, a 2,000-year-old trade route that linked China with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures—scientific research extends as far as the Tibetan Plateau. Lanzhou, the capital, is surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks, and still has the feel of a timeworn oasis. Lanzhou University, which hosts nearly 20,000 undergraduates and more than 10,000 postgraduates, is a region-wide magnet for scholars and students in physics, chemistry, and information sciences.

Gansu and Sichuan each hosts a major spaceflight launch center, and both provinces aim to ramp up research and development of space technology as part of a wider push to accelerate progress across the sciences.

The eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau cuts through both provinces, and Tibetan communities are sprinkled across its foothills. The region is a gateway for trekkers and researchers eager to explore the mountains and cultures of westernmost China.

A new "Golden Age" in southwestern China

"A sense of adventure" impelled Nicholas Kersting, who obtained a Ph.D. in particle physics from the University of California, Berkeley, to do his postdoctoral research at Sichuan University.

Kersting, who until recently was a professor at Sichuan University is now a senior associate at Princeton Consultants in New Jersey, says his interest in the region initially was sparked when he visited to give a research talk at the school's physics department. "I became very fond of the incredible cuisine and mountain scenery, and the culture felt electric," he explains. "I needed to explore that."

Looking ahead, he predicts: "Sichuan University will attract increasing numbers of Western scholars, partly due to the improving condition of the university and organization of the physics department."

"The ambiance of Chengdu was always addictive, but now the overall quality of life is accelerating far more than any of the many other cities I've been to in China," he explains. "I think we're entering its Golden Age."

Ji Xiangdong, a professor in theoretical physics at the University of Maryland who also heads the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics, Astronomy, and Cosmology at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, says China's strengthening economic power is creating a widening web of major science projects and opportunities for scientists from across the world. This is helping reverse a decades-long brain drain that has seen many Chinese scientists who studied in the West stay in North America or Europe.

Ji also heads the PandaX Experiment, a search for dark matter being conducted from an underground laboratory, created by cutting a 17 km long tunnel through a mountain on the outskirts of Chengdu. Chinese and American scientists collaborating on the project are using a xenon-based detector to monitor potential collisions between xenon nucleons and weakly interacting massive particles, hypothesized candidates for dark matter particles. "What's really exciting is a plan to enlarge this new underground lab by about 20 times, creating space for more scientific experiments," he explains, making the city even more attractive for leading scientists from around the world.

The experiment is partially funded by the NSFC, whose outlays for research across the sciences are surging in tandem with China's high-speed GDP growth, he says, even as the central government increases special financing for science centers in western China.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, has already attracted more than 2,000 scholars with advanced degrees from abroad with its award programs, and is launching a new Hundred Talents Plan to step up this strategy, says Cao Jinghua, deputy director-general of the CAS Bureau of International Cooperation.

CAS recently hosted a "Joint Scientific Space Mission Workshop" with the European Space Agency in Chengdu that brought together scientists from across Europe and China. "Space is one area that we are emphasizing for increasing international cooperation," he explains, and adds the workshop was staged in Chengdu to showcase the region's strengthening science centers.

Chengdu is tapping burgeoning state coffers to build up its universities and academies, part of a nationwide strategy aimed at using scientific knowledge to shape a better collective future, according to Jiang Jianping, a senior scientist at the CAS Chengdu Institute of Biology.

While the central government is investing more in Sichuan, it is also "making better policies to attract scholars, especially scientists, into the region," he explains. At the same time, he says, "The Chinese Academy of Sciences has a plan to attract more researchers from Europe and America."

The Chengdu Institute of Biology already hosts visiting scholars from Europe and will likely become increasingly international, explains Dai Qiang, an associate professor studying animal ecology and conservation biology. Its research centers in agricultural biotechnology, natural medicinal compounds, biopharmaceuticals, environmental microbiology, and ecology are all currently expanding, he adds.

The biology institute's National Engineering Research Center for Natural Medicines has teamed up with Chengdu Di'ao Pharmaceutical Group to research and produce medicines derived from natural compounds. Ji Jianxin, a professor in pharmacological chemistry who also heads research at Di'ao, explains that while the research center aims to import and develop new technologies to enhance pharmaceutical production across China, Di'ao—which had one traditional herbal medicinal product approved for sale in the Netherlands in 2012—ultimately will target the entire European Union and U.S. markets. Di'ao has already assembled a small circle of American- and European-educated scientists, and plans to attract even more scholars from around the world, he adds. Ji himself was granted a CAS Hundred Talents award after his postdoctoral research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

The CAS outpost in Chengdu also hosts a range of environmentally focused projects. Wu Ning, the director of the Chengdu Institute of Biology, investigates restoration of China's degraded mountain ecosystems, the impacts of the catastrophic 2008 earthquake on Sichuan's environment, and the effects of rangeland privatization on biodiversity across the Tibetan Plateau.

Some of the research positions being opened to Western-trained scientists can be both intensely exciting and have immense benefit to society, notes Cui Peng, vice director of the CAS Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment in Chengdu. In May of 2008, in the immediate aftermath of magnitude 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan, Cui Peng led a team that examined extremely dangerous dams created by landslides and rock falls that threatened millions of lives across the seismic hazard zone. Their rapid assessment of the massive quake-induced transformation of the region's geography and their engineering solutions to these geohazards likely saved countless lives.

The quake also affected many of the mountainside refuges that are the last natural habitats of the giant panda; even some of the rebuilding projects that followed led to increased fragmentation of these panda reserves. This ever-looming threat impelled scientists at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to accelerate programs aimed at saving the panda.

This research base has attracted top scholars in biomedicine, reproductive biology, genomics, and conservation who have teamed up on studies aimed at pulling the panda back from the brink of extinction.

Professor Dai Qiang has been working with scientists at the panda research base to create computer simulations mapping the effects of habitat fragmentation or expansion on the collective gene pool of endangered species. Dai says that these studies could be used to help giant pandas and other wildlife facing the threat of extinction across Sichuan.

Scientists at this research base likewise have created a global web of collaborations with counterparts from organizations including the Smithsonian National Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, and the Madrid Zoo to test the panda's ability to adapt to new ecosystems across the continents. By sending panda couples to zoos across the world, Chinese guardians of the panda are allowing researchers at these outposts to experiment with varying breeding techniques, habitats, and even panda-focused child-rearing psychology studies. Breakthroughs and discoveries made via this globe-spanning panda network are channeled back to the Chengdu research base and applied to aid the panda's survival.

Photo of Zhang Wenping

Zhang Wenping

Other scientists at the Chengdu research base conduct periodic reviews of the genetic profiles of the captive and wild populations of the giant panda, and have proposed schemes to ensure gene flow across these groups to prevent genetic bottlenecks. Researchers have also joined up with international colleagues to assemble a draft sequence of the giant panda genome and to help determine whether the estimated 2,500 extant pandas feature enough genetic variability to prevent the destruction of the species.

The research base aims to recruit scholars worldwide to join the core team in southwest China, according to Zhang Wenping, a genomics expert at Chengdu's panda breeding center.

Scientific oases in northwestern China

Kang Shichang

Earth, ecological, and environmental sciences are all on the rise. –Kang Shichang

An expanding arc of scientific research areas is attracting scholars to western China: "Earth, ecological, and environmental sciences are all on the rise," explains Kang Shichang, director of the CAS State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science in Lanzhou. In some cases, he adds, opportunities and grants for research here are more generous than in the United States. He predicts that as Chinese funding for research balloons, more of his compatriots at American universities are likely to follow in his footsteps by returning to China.

Two million yuan (US$323,000) in research funds covering a four-year period, plus 700,000 yuan (US$114,000) in startup seed money, impelled Kang to relocate from a postdoctoral research position at the University of Maine to set up a lab focusing on climate change across the glaciers, lakes, and mountains that cap the Tibetan Plateau. Now, he leads frequent expeditions to the highest peak on the planet—Mount Everest—to carve out ice cores that carry frozen traces of modern pollutants and glaciochemical records of centuries past.

His lab is part of Lanzhou's Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, which hosts more than 40 foreign experts who either serve on an advisory committee or as guest professors.

The mountains that surround Lanzhou and the deserts that cut through Gansu Province create an oasis for academic study that contrasts with the frenetic cities and colleges along China’s cosmopolitan coast, explains Hu Bin.

The mountains that surround Lanzhou and the deserts that cut through Gansu Province create an oasis for academic study that contrasts with the frenetic cities and colleges along China’s cosmopolitan coast, explains Hu Bin.

The region's astounding topography also holds appeal for researchers beyond the environmental sciences. The mountains that surround Lanzhou and the deserts that cut through Gansu Province create an oasis for academic study that contrasts with the frenetic cities and colleges along China's cosmopolitan coast, explains Hu Bin, dean of the Lanzhou University's School of Information Science and Engineering. Enrollment is exploding at the school, as well as in biomedical engineering and telecommunications, he says.

Previously a visiting scholar at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Hu accepted his position as part of the central government's Thousand Talents Program and will continue his research on Semantic Web projects, which range from digital publishing to Web-augmented diagnosis tools for hospitals.

In another sector of the city, Lanzhou's Institute of Modern Physics (IMP) is offering packages through the CAS Hundred Talents Plan to attract outstanding experts in hadron physics and high-profile accelerator physicists.

IMP Director Xiao Guoqing, who obtained a doctorate in physics from the Free University of Berlin, explains the institute set up a special department to focus on research and development of a superconducting proton collider.

Leading physicists across the country and around the world have been tracking China's plans to construct a Circular Electron Positron Collider as well as a Super Proton Proton Collider inside the same underground tunnel, adds Xiao.

It would be "very, very good" for the province if the supercollider could be located in Gansu, he says.

Creating this supercollider, measuring up to 80 km in circumference, "would undoubtedly attract many particle physics and (most importantly) accelerator physicists to help in the construction of the accelerator and the mounting of experiments," predicts David Gross, a Nobel laureate in physics and scholar at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Physicists go to where the best physics can be done," says Gross, who traveled to China earlier this year to join a symposium on the twin colliders.

Designing and constructing China's circular colliders will rely on an international team of scientists coalescing around one of the most ambitious projects centered on peace and science in human history, explains Gao Jie, one of the primary shapers of the future accelerators at the CAS Institute of High Energy Physics.

"We will welcome scientists across the world to participate," says Gao, who conducted research as an accelerator physicist at the Linear Accelerator Laboratory, National Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics (IN2P3), in the French city of Orsay for more than 15 years.

In one of the first steps toward constructing these colliders, Professor Gao's institute has created the Center for Future High Energy Physics in Beijing, headed by Nima Arkani-Hamed, one of the foremost theoretical physicists in the United States.

Arkani-Hamed, a scholar at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, says the new ringed accelerators could attract up to 10,000 scientists from across the planet, and will make China "the collider center of the world."

Nobel Laureate Gross agrees: "There are few areas where a single country can leap into the lead role in a fundamental area of research—this is one."

Taking the lead in the future might depend in part on breathing new life into the past. Ancient Silk Road connections with other cultures helped the western sector of the Chinese empire create some of the most advanced cities and learning centers in human history. The capital of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), in western China, was by many measures the most cosmopolitan city of its time, with the Silk Road attracting not just traders, but scholars and philosophers, into the region. Western China's present-day efforts to create a "New Silk Road" that links up all Eurasia and to attract scholars from across China and around the world may similarly transform the region into an expanding oasis for academia and science.

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