from Asia Unbound

Tu Youyou: An Outlier of China’s Scientific and Technological System

October 06, 2015

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On October 5, a native Chinese scientist, Tu Youyou, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for her role in developing an antimalarial drug that saves millions of lives in Africa and Asia. The award is considered a milestone in China’s history of science and technology as Tu is not only the first Chinese citizen but also the first Chinese-trained scientist ever to be awarded the most prestigious award in science. In fact, unlike other Chinese Nobel laureates in science, all of whom had overseas training, Tu had neither study nor research experience abroad. The most important research that led to the discovery of the medicine for which she was awarded the prize, artemisinin, was conducted in China. Surprised but exalted, many Chinese have attributed this prize to China’s scientific and technological (S&T) regime. Already, social media in China is flooded with discussions on who will be the next Chinese scientist to win the prize.

But does this honor truly testify to the effectiveness of China’s S&T system? Since the early 1980s China has aggressively promoted research and development (R&D) as an integral part of its modernization agenda. By 2011, China had already become the second largest investor in R&D in the world. Between 2011 and 2015 the government invested more than $4.7 billion in medical science research alone. Currently, and for almost five years running, the volume of Chinese patent filing is the largest of any country of the world. With support from the government, Chinese scientists have independently developed about forty chemical drugs since 1986. Still, constrained by institutional, policy, and capacity factors, the country is struggling to become a true innovator—indeed, most of the so-called “independently developed” (zizhu chuangxin) drugs are copycat drugs from a clinical point of view. Furthermore, the pharmaceutical industry in China remains positioned at the lower end of the global supply chain as an exporter of active pharmaceutical ingredients rather than a formulator of innovative pharmaceutical products. This is in part caused by a research culture that remains bedeviled by inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement problems. Among other things, the system has failed to develop an effective incentive structure that rejects mediocracy and recognizes truly innovative scientists. As a result, a Gresham’s Law-like system has developed where mediocracy is overvalued and innovation is hindered. For example, even though Tu was found to have played a critical role in artemisinin-based drug development, she was never an individual recipient of top science awards in China. She was several times nominated but rejected membership in the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences. Many Chinese scientists who participated in the project hold the belief that Tu was only one contributor and they too deserved a piece of the Nobel Prize. This might explain why Tu had earlier refused to share the original research data with a scientist who had wanted to promote her research.

Much to the chagrin of the champions of the existing S&T system, the artemisinin-related research was primarily conducted not in the post-Mao era but in the early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Does that mean that the Maoist S&T regime was superior to the current one (as some Maoists would contend)? An argument for “yes” would be as logically fallacious as saying that the Soviet system was better than its successor because the former produced more Nobel laureates than the post-Soviet one. Indeed, only two drugs—artemisinin and dimercaptosuccinic acid —developed in the Mao era were internationally recognized as innovative drugs. True, the development of artemisinin-based drugs was the result of a top secret mission ordered by Mao (“Project 523”), which itself demonstrated the advantages of a nationwide system that encouraged esprit de corps while effectively mobilizing available resources for R&D. Political turmoil, coupled with Mao’s anti-intellectualism and egalitarianism, nevertheless left little room for inspiration and innovation in other research fields. The emphasis on group contribution, for example, led to the elimination of individual authors’ names from all academic publications. Against this backdrop, serendipity rather than the system was more relevant to Tu’s discovery. Furthermore, Mao’s China cut itself off from the outside world, which forestalled international exchange and prevented groundbreaking discoveries from being introduced and marketed internationally. Indeed, foreign scientists did not learn about the discovery of artemisinin until December 1979; unable to independently break into international markets, China sold the international rights to market artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) to a Swiss company. This in part explains why even today ACTs made in China only account for 1 percent of the international market share.

Having a native Chinese win the Nobel Prize in science has long been a Chinese dream. Just two years ago, China kicked off an ambitious program aiming to select 100 top scientists for extra support in order to compete for future Nobel Prizes. Winning the award by Tu appears to boost the confidence in a system where Tu is by no means a representative sample. National pride aside, the fact that Tu is an outlier only underscores the need for China to fundamentally revamp its S&T system.