State honors. Chinese President Jiang Zemin, center, awards top science prize to Wu Wenjun, left, and Yuan Longping.

China Honors Science Pioneers

FONT SIZE=-1>BEIJING--China's newest--and by far richest--prize for lifetime scientific achievement was awarded last week to a mathematician and an agronomist. But the gala state celebration on 19 February was dampened by evidence of how far the country's research community still must go to compete globally: First place in two other major categories of scientific achievement went unclaimed after officials decided that no researchers were worthy of the honor.

The winners of the new State Supreme Science and Technology Award, which comes with a 5 million yuan ($600,000) prize, are Wu Wenjun and Yuan Longping. Wu, 82, is a topologist who developed a computer algorithm for solving a collection of polynomials, the equivalent of proving a geometric hypothesis. It is useful in pattern recognition and other computer tasks. Yuan, 72, is considered the father of hybrid-rice technology in China and is credited with helping China achieve a three-fold boost in rice production over the past 4 decades. He has also amassed a personal fortune by lending his name to a high-tech seed company formed last year, in exchange for equity in the new company.

The awards, conferred by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, were created to highlight outstanding achievement and demonstrate the importance of science in the nation's economic development. Some 90% of the prize money will be plowed back into research at their former work sites--in Wu's case, the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Mathematics and System Science in Beijing; for Yuan, the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The remainder is for their personal use, or as Wu told reporters: "I think that is my own business."

Wu and Yuan were chosen from among 14 finalists to receive what is expected to be an annual prize. But the central government declined for the third straight year to pick a first-place winner in two other categories--natural science and technological innovation--because none of the nominees met the criteria for having achieved "at the world level." Members of the selection committee said their decision reflects the fact that China's basic research enterprise still trails the rest of the world and that most projects lack the creative spark needed to achieve fundamental advances in science.