China's Potential

Robert Tjian was born in Hong Kong but left China with his parents in 1949 and spent his early years in South America and in New Jersey. “Culturally, I'm more American than Chinese, by a long shot. [Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winning physicist] Steve Chu and I always joke about the fact that we speak hardly any Chinese.”

Tjian does not have any formal research projects with Chinese partners, but he has been an adviser to a number of molecular biology institutes in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He views the efforts of expatriate Chinese scientists to try to improve research in their native land as “an appropriate and a positive step.” He adds: “When someone like Xiaodong [Wang] agrees to run the Beijing institute, [China is] really attracting high-quality scientists... I also see more and more young Chinese postdocs who are willing to go straight back to positions there.”

As for Tian Xu's institute at Fudan University, Tjian says: “He realized that it's a heck of a lot more cost-effective to do mouse colonies in China than it is in the U.S. As long as he helped supervise the quality of the ‘knockouts’ and the genotyping, it's a good solution. And it will be an international resource.”

While he says that “I can't predict what the political scene is going to be like in China 10 years from now,” Tjian thinks that biomedical research can only benefit by improved Chinese research. “Let's say the Chinese come up with a very good drug for a disease we don't have a cure for right now, that would benefit everybody. It's not the same thing as building rockets, where we might want to protect our technology.”

Tjian says that “a defining element of American science is the propensity to give early-career scientists their independence. If Xiaodong can achieve that in Beijing, I think that would be fantastic.” All three of the scientists [mentioned in the main feature] who are leading Chinese institutes—Poo, Xu, and Wang—“have basically imported the American style of science... These are all guys who have experience themselves with what that independence allows them to do.”

Other than its Janelia Farm campus and a new HIV/tuberculosis research institute now under construction in South Africa, HHMI has invested in scientists—including dozens outside of the U.S.—rather than in building institutes. “We're reviewing all of our international programs,” Tjian says. “We are open to many possible models of how to proceed in the future for developing science programs internationally. But we don't have any one approach fixed in our minds.”

International collaboration is important, he says. “Science is driven by free communication—without regard to national or international boundaries.”

- Robert Koenig
HHMI Bulletin, February 2010

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