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14 June 2010

China's Next Challenge--Educating Innovative Talents in Science and Technology
President's Speech
 

I'd like to first thank the main organizers Jason Cong and Fred Roberts for inviting me to give this keynote banquet talk. I'd also like to thank my HKUST colleague Professor Lionel Ni for sharing his insights about Chinese Computer Science with me in the preparation of this talk.

One of the liabilities of being a university president is having to give speeches to complete strangers on topics that he or she is not passionate and knowledgeable about. But tonight is different. I am among professional colleagues and friends. I actually know quite a few of you in the audience. Some I have been colleagues in the same organization (Estrin, DeAngelis), some I have collaborated with (Cong) and some I have been in weekly meetings for several years (Wing). I even know a bit about the technical aspects of the meeting, being a "card-carrying" computer scientist, with a PhD in the field, having taught in a Computer Science (CS) department and having had joint appointments in one (including now). And I can claim to be on both sides of the US-China aspect of the meeting, being a US citizen and having studied and worked in the US for 40 years, and being born in HK, China (when it was still British) and now as President of one of its universities. Thus I feel very much at home tonight, amongst friends and professional family. But by the same token, I hope you'll excuse me for being frank, politically incorrect and being personal in what I am going to say.

I'd like to structure my talk into 3 parts. First, I'd like to take advantage of the occasion to reflect a bit on my personal experience on CS as an academic,discipline, and on my visits to China over the years. Then, I'd like to look at the current situation in education and research in S&T, which includes CS of course, before ending with a look into the future.

In some sense, the rise of modern China and the emergence of CS as an academic discipline started at about the same time, shortly after the 2nd World War. Also similar are their exponential rise in importance globally in just the last 20-30 years. Most of you are familiar with the rise of CS, especially on the hardware side starting with big main frames, to IC, PC, Internet, to where computing permeates every aspect of S&T, commerce and everyday life. When I first arrived at Caltech as an UG in 1970, the Arpanet was just initiated and there were relatively few CS departments at US universities, with none at Caltech and Yale's, where I later taught, was just being initiated. The first computer I encountered at Caltech was a PDP-11 (even though there was a "mainframe" in the campus computing center. Remember Job Control Language, IBM cards, tapes?). When I went to Stanford's CS department as a graduate student, its CS department was less than a decade old, Vint Cerf was teaching OS and working on TCP/IP and the HP-35C was just coming out at US$400 each. But Macsyma, probably the first widely used remote access program, was already available at MIT through the Arpanet and I made heavy use of it in my thesis. So certainly, we have come a long way in a relatively short time!

The rise of China as an economic power also started under humble circumstances but is also equally rapid and phenomenal. In fact, changes in China are often more striking to visitors who had visited it 20-30 years ago than to first time visitors. I first visited Mainland China in 1978, the year I got my PhD. I visited Guangzhou and Sun Yat-Sen University and South China University of Technology and gave talks there and visited their computing centers. I recall vividly that the main computer was a PDP-11 class computer that still used paper tape and one had to change into slippers before they let you into the room. I also recall that electricity was rationed in the city. The first time I visited Beijing in Winter 1985, I stayed at Peking University (in fact at Shao Yuan, where we just had lunch. It hasn't changed a bit!). Beijing was very, very different then from what you see today. Hot water was rationed. There were essentially no private cars, no subways and only two ring roads. Wangfujing was one narrow darkly lit alley, and shopping at a store required lining up 3 times: once to inspect the thing you wanted to buy, then to pay at a separate counter, and then queue up again to get the merchandise. The computers I saw at the CAS' Computing Center was not much better than the one I saw in Guangzhou in 1978. Now, China has the #2 (Nebulae – Xinghe?) and #7 (Tianhe – one of the designers is here) spots on the world's Top 500 supercomputer list (as of last month). The computer graphics display at the China Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo is stunning and of course Lenovo has bought the PC business from IBM!! Who would have thought!!

Indeed, the world has changed.

Now I'll discuss my (limited) observation of China's investment in S&T, much of this based on NSF's annual S&T indicator analysis, reading Science and Nature, and my own interaction with the Chinese S&T system, especially in the last few months in my current position. It should have come as no surprise that China has decided to invest part of the resources from its rapid economic advance into S&T. What may be less well known is the level and degree of commitment. It is not often that a top political leader of a country writes an editorial to Science but that's exactly what Wen Jiabao did on Oct 31, 2008 (apology to Obama for his commitment to science in his inaugural speech). In the editorial, he outlined China's mid to long term plan in S&T (and IT is in it), stating that China's future depends on how it attracts, trains and uses its young S&T talents and that S&T is the way to build and sustain national economic growth. He ends by saying that "science is the ultimate revolution." Again, who would have thought!! Anyway, clearly the commitment and the resources come from the top.

The statistics on the recent growth of Chinese S&T is quite staggering. I give some figures from a July 2008 Nature article. The ratio of GERD to GDP rose from about 0.5% in 1995 to 1.5% (US$90B in purchasing power) in 2008. This is still quite low compared with many OECD countries but remember China's GDP is now basically the 2nd largest globally. China's share of world expenditure in R&D is still low, about 5%, compared to 36% for US, 15% for Japan and 8% for Germany. Of course, China wants to increase both the ratio and the denominator rapidly (increasing about 8% annually), over the near future. In terms of S&T workforce, China had in 2008 about 1.2M researchers, and produced about 15,000 PhD's in science. China's share of the world's scientific publications rose from 1% in 1990 to about just under 8% in 2006, comparable to UK, Japan and Germany. China is also making big bets on big science: HEP, telescopes, light sources, etc (LHC, ILC, ITER, Shanghai Light Source, radio telescope in Guizhou, SNS in Dongguan).

One difference I have observed between S&T funding in the US and in China is that the role of the local government is much more active in China, especially when it comes to applied research. The central agencies, such as NSFC, MOST, CAS, NDRC (and 863, 973, State Key Labs) still supply the bulk of the resources, but provinces, even cities (e.g. Shenzhen) are very pro-active in putting up resources. An example is the Shanghai Light Sources, co-funded by the city of Shanghai and CAS.

Now I come to the last part of my talk, about where China's S&T may be going in the future. I emphasize I don't have any insider information and what I am going to say is purely based on my own limited observations and from public information. China has already become the manufacturer of the world – all you have to do is to go to Shenzhen and Dongguan across the border from Hong Kong and look (which I recently did). And this is not just for the low-end WalMart goods. Huawei, now the 2nd largest communications hardware company in the world is based in Shenzhen. I visited its headquarters last week because HKUST has a joint lab with them. Across the street is Foxconn, which makes most of Apple's iPhones, among other things. I also visited TDK SAE Magnetics, which makes about a quarter of the world's disk drives. I have already mentioned Lenovo, which is a major PC manufacturer. On the basic research side, if China's economic miracle continues, and if it continues to invest in S&T (which its leadership has committed to), then certainly it will have a real potential of becoming a scientific force globally. But can China go the next big step and produce the next Apple, Google, YouTube, and Facebook, as well as Nobel Laureates? Can it be a leader in impact rather than in quantity of scientific research? In short, can it be a true leader in S&T and be truly innovative?

There are some notable examples of success. In IT, there are Alibaba (Jack Ma), Tencent (#1 internet company in China, CEO Ma Huateng), Huawei, Baidu (Robin Li) etc. Even the "emulation" (山寨) mobile phones are quite innovative. China certainly has the talents, the financial resources and a large domestic market to drive an innovation industry. Many foreign companies have started to tap into the Chinese talent pool, and the potentially huge market, by setting up major R&D labs in China. This includes MSRA, Google, Intel, IBM, and Google in the IT field alone.

MSRA in particular has been extremely successful in certain domains, e.g. SIGGRAPH publications. It has had great leadership starting with Kai Fu Lee , Zhang Yaqin, Harry Shum and now Hong Xiaowen. It has attracted top talents from around China and provided them with a great working environment to do innovative research and the result has been spectacular. But MSRA also serves to highlight a fundamental challenge for China. All of these leaders received their research training in the US (all Carnegie Mellon University CS graduates!!) Can China's education system produce the innovative, independent, critically thinking workforce that is necessary for it to truly be a global leader in S&T?

Another thing to note from the MSRA example is that these leaders from Mainland China and Taiwan were all attracted to study in the US. It is widely acknowledged that the ability of the US to attract top talents from around the world to study and work there is a major competitive advantage. Can China be the S&T "Mecca" in the future? Can it attract more Andy Yao's?

China's leadership recognizes this fundamental issue. It is trying to fundamentally reform its education system, in particular the research universities. The top universities like Peking University and Tsinghua University are receiving major injection of resources to make them world class (I've heard up to four times*). Last month, China's State Council issued a set of extensive guidelines to reform China's education system, including universities, in 10 years. China has recently announced a "1000 Talent Scheme" to attract top S&T talents from around the world to work, full time, in China, with competitive salaries and startup funds. There are some very notable success stories, well covered in the US media, of well-established senior Chinese faculty members of top US universities quitting and returning to permanent jobs in China. In the recent 4th China Foreign University Presidents Forum held in Nanjing about a month ago, in which I participated (together with the presidents of Yale, Stanford, Chicago, UCLA, Duke, Rice, Oxford, KTH etc), a major topic was what the best way is to train innovative leaders with critical and independent thinking. Yale's president Rick Levin, who is an expert on China's university system, was comparing the US and Chinese university systems from this perspective. He was on CCTV last night being interviewed on the same issue. On both occasions, while trying to be diplomatic, he was critical of the Asian culture of rote learning, emphasis on exams and reluctance to challenge elders, which while perfectly fine for producing excellent technical experts, are detrimental to producing future innovative leaders. Tsinghua's president Guo described in his talk how his university is introducing more humanities and social sciences, international exchanges, interdisciplinary training to their UG curriculum. But this is going to be a long and difficult process. And China is impatient to wait 900 years to catch up with Oxford! To me, this is the most difficult challenge facing China in this arena.

Hong Kong and HKUST in particular, offers an interesting case study in this endeavor. Hong Kong has for 150 years been a place where East meets West. Since 1997, it has been politically governed by a unique One Country Two Systems framework. Yet, 13 years later, we have a kind of hybrid system. For example, my observation after a few months on the job at HKUST is that its academic system is North American, its administrative system is British (civil service) and its "culture" is Chinese! Our instruction is done in English and our faculty is international. Our students are encouraged to do international exchanges. We are switching from a British 3-year university system to a 4 year US system and we are offered the opportunity to rethink how we train innovative leaders rather than merely provide career preparation. Due to the one third increase in Undergraduate students, the universities in Hong Kong will be hiring a combined total of over 1000 new faculty members in the next few years. In the most recent QS ranking of Asian universities, 3 of the top 5 are in Hong Kong. HKUST is the no.2 and we are only 19 years old. With the Pearl River Delta being a major high tech area and the local and national government making major S&T investments there, my challenge to our faculty is to make HKUST the Stanford/MIT of the Pearl River Delta. Can Hong Kong be a role model for China in its attempt to reform its higher education?

I'd like to conclude by congratulating both the Chinese and US organizers of this summit for initiating and continuing this scientific exchange. I think it'll be viewed as visionary in the years to come. Of course, at the individual faculty, or even university, level, there are already substantial exchanges. But we need national leadership, and policy, to sustain such relationships, as well as to overcome occasional political barriers. The world is truly global, and the flow of global talents does not obey national boundaries anymore. In the future, it may be just as important for a US student or researcher to have an academic experience in China, as it has been for their Chinese counterparts to go to the US. Imagine that!!

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts.

 

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