Friday, March 25, 2011

Setting Fish Free Bridge

This is the Fangsheng Bridge in Zhujiajiao, a Venetian-style Water Village near Shanghai that our host Dongqing Wei kindly took us to visit a week ago. Fangsheng is a 16th century "setting fish free" bridge, at the foot of which vendors sell bags of fish and turtles. Buyers then set them free in the water, thus smugly gaining merit according to Buddhism. (Did anyone ask the fish and turtles if they would rather have not been caught in the first place?).

In some ways the fish are an analogy to what China is trying to do with basic science - set it free. Funding for basic science is now doubling in the space of two years. Sounds impressive (although the actual dollar numbers will in the near term only approach those of NSF or BES, not surpass them). But judging by what we saw at Shanghai Jiao Tong University the building infrastructure is also in place. What seemed to me to be missing was a critical mass of top quality faculty. SJTU has started this recruitment, and we talked to some recent recruitees - all originally Chinese who had been in top positions in North America. Indeed, one of the natural consequences for the USA is that this funding increase, when coupled to the equivalent defunding proposed by the US Congress, should lead to a potentially large proportion of the brilliant young Chinese, of the type that have been dominating the contests for leading science positions in the USA over the last 20 years, preferring the exciting challenges beckoning in their country of origin.

Scientists are fish in bags - we can swim only wherever we happen to be set free.

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