Chemistry’s Sun Rises in the East

Andrew Sun Chemistry Blogger

Many of you will know chemist Andrew Sun from his On the Road blog and from his occasional but insightful comments on the Sciencebase site. I recently interviewed him for the Reactive Reports chemistry webzine and you can read the result there in the current issue. I edited his answers to fit the magazine for length and housestyle but I’ve reproduced his full answers to one or two poignant questions here exclusively for Sciencebase readers.

How do you think being a chemist in China differs from working in “The West”?

I don’t know very much how people doing chemistry in the west. I get an impression from videos of lab work posted online. But one difference I am very sure is that we do not have enough money and we do have a poor academic system. Most students still have to pay tuition at the MS stage. The campus scholarship can only pay for a dinner with your friends, and we have far fewer, or no, third-party scholarships here). In the PhD phase public subsidies can still hardly cover the cost of living. Bosses (supervisors) cannot be too nice to their students because they are also running out of money. To apply for more funds and get promoted in a badly designed academic system they have to publish enough papers in high quality journals. They have to publish more in less time so they need more unpaid PhD students working harder.

China pours the world’s second largest bucket of money into science according to statistics, but one should also consider the fact that no NMR machines, no TEM, SEM, AFM sets, neither other instruments, are manufactured in China. Bosses have to buy these from abroad (CNY 1.00=USD 0.13=EUR 0.10, plus taxes) – and regain the cost by charging several hundred per sample for characterization requests. (Cryo-TEM, which is widely used in the study of soft matter, cost CNY 2000 per sample here!) Money thus goes two ways to both buying the instruments needed and to paying the usage fees.

In addition we have a weak chemical industry here which cannot provide qualified reagents. So to conduct a delicate synthesis with less failures in less time, one trick is to buy your reagents from Alfa Aesar, Sigma Aldrich, etc. who charge your boss more. Not to mention the local glassware – we cannot find any tight ground glass joint from local manufacturers. Oftentimes PhD are forced to manipulate impure reagents in a leaky glove box, with minimal budgets to test their products for sure, yet still having to publish in journals with high impact factors.

As such PhD students in China are a depressed group and we hear of suicides among PhD chemists from time to time (in one case the poor guy synthesised a few milligrams of potassium cyanide and…). That’s why now lesser MS grad students are moving on to a PhD. In fact most of the MS students aren’t truly working for science; they are only working for the degree which could mean a slightly better salary than a BS degree in the job market. So most MS students go to find a job once they get their degrees, and yet a large number pursue their career of science abroad. So we have the brain drain problem – obviously the above mentioned situation in China is not attractive enough of them to come back in the future.

However I’m still hopeful because everything is getting better, not worse. Therefore I chose to stay in China during my PhD period.

What more can chemists around the world do to work towards a global chemical community? How might certain more restrictive governments be persuaded of the benefits of such international collaborations?

First it is important for them, both the chemists and the governments, to realize the benefits of international collaborations; not only why, but practically how. Currently with limited communication, for example, a US scientist can hardly know why he/she should cooperate with a Chinese scientist for a project. More communication and understanding between chemists from different countries are needed to start any collaboration. The growing online chemistry community could provide such chances. But currently Chinese chemists who actively participate in the online community are rare; I know no one else except me.

Governments might consider much more, for example the ‘leakage’ of knowledge or secrets. However I believe the advantage of collaboration can outweigh the shortcomings which can be overcome by carefully designed policies and contracts. I guess the Chinese government should welcome global collaborations because we are currently much weaker and have a lot to learn from others. But currently the extent of this is much smaller than I’d hope for. There is still much to change.

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