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蒲慕明教授对神经所2004的新年祝词

时间:2004-01-10 00:00来源:bioguider.com 作者:admin 阅读:

Dear Members of ION:
At the beginning of 2004, I wish everyone a happy and fruitful New Year. On my way back to Berkeley, I attended the Advisory Board meeting of the Institute of Molecular Biology of Academia Sinica in Taiwan. I found out that ION’s progress has been closely watched by quite a few scientists in Taiwan and ION is viewed as a successful example of research institution in China. I am surprised that the modest achievement of ION has attracted so much attention. Here are some of my thoughts on my flight over the Pacific.
What exactly have we done in the past four years? First, we have published a dozen or so high-quality papers. However, we have not yet made any discovery that is generally considered as highly significant or ground-breaking. This publication record can be accomplished easily by a single active laboratory of a dozen people in most first-rate research institutions in the world, with a small fraction of the resources and facilities we have in ION. Second, we have tried to instigate a better administrative support structure. However, the efficiency of ION offices was due largely to the diligence and devotion of our staff members, rather than to any real innovation of administrative infrastructure. Third, we have tried to build a research environment that is more conducive to first-rate creative work for our PIs and students. We have probably succeeded in creating an environment with a higher pressure for productivity, but we have a long way to go in creating an environment that I would consider to be a “Safe Haven” for creative scientific work. Just take a poll among our students and asked them whether they feel ION has provided them with an environment for intellectual stimulation, freedom and satisfaction, I bet ION will score very low. Over the years, I heard repeated stories that some of our laboratory heads strictly forbid students to explore their own ideas or consider attending student-run journal clubs and discussion groups, even reading papers and books unrelated to their immediate work a waste of time, on the basis that working only on the assigned project is more likely to yield publications. Each laboratory head may have a different style of running a laboratory, and I myself have known a few famous scientists who are “dictators” in the laboratory. However, unless the dictator is truly a first-rate scientist with a clear vision, I have not seen any success story. When an ambitious postdoctoral fellow James Watson and a graduate student Francis Crick wanted to play with the modeling approach in solving the structure of DNA in the Cavandish Laboratory, the director Bragg disapprove it and considered it a waste of time, but Watson and Crick were not prevented from their model playing, only discouraged. The creativity of the young minds is the most precious asset of ION and of any other scientific institution. Thus, I take it as my duty to help to shape ION into a place where young researchers have the opportunity to realize their full potential and to learn to be not only productive but also creative as well.
In my opinion, the job of a laboratory head is to set the general direction of the research and suggest research projects and strategies. Students are here not just to carry out the research that yields good publications, but also to learn to become a first-rate creative scientist, not an efficient technician. The only way to learn to be creative, like any activity-dependent process in the brain, is to have the opportunity to exercise with the creative process. Following strict orders and trying to solve assigned duties may provide some opportunities for the mind to work, but motivation and enthusiasm, which provide the essential driving force for the creative mental process, will be more abundant when some of the ideas originate from the students themselves. Furthermore, young students are usually less inhibited by the existing ideas and paradigms, partly due to their “ignorance”, thus are more likely to come up with new and important findings, which usually involve challenges to existing ideas and paradigms. Thus my first New Year message to all ION PIs is to allow the students substantial freedom in pursuing their own ideas, however feeble and naïve their ideas may sound initially. I am fully confident with my assertion that the most creative (and most productive) laboratory in ION in the long run is the one in which the students have the intellectual freedom to pursue their own ideas. Since one of the founding principles of ION is to provide an environment for creative scientific work, I will ensure that only such a laboratory will have my full support.
My second message is the following: Complacency is the worst enemy of progress. As I said in the ION Retreat last November, ION is now only at the beginning phase of the “critical period” of institutional growth. There is already significant achievement by the Chinese standard. However, our self-assessment should always be based on comparison with other first-rate institutions in the world. As Dr. Shigang He’s recent survey of publication records shows, by the latter comparison, we should feel highly inadequate and refrain from any self-glorification, especially to our Chinese colleagues and media. Our productivity and general quality of research are not even close to that of the Institute of Molecular Biology in Taiwan.
My third message is to stress the point that our PIs should spend the majority of their time on their own research problems in the laboratory, not on matters related (or unrelated) to their research, e.g., applying for additional resources and attending irrelevant meetings. Our facilities and financial support are now much better than all other neuroscience institutions in China. It is unjustified to channel more resources into our laboratories, many of which now have banked enough reserves that could last for many years, at the expense of other seemingly “less productive” laboratories in other institutions. How can we ever be proud of ourselves when our modest achievement can be attributed to the fact that we have much more resources than others? Thus, starting from this year, I will strictly enforce the rule that no grant application will leave ION unless I am personally convinced of the necessity of the application. My hope is that this will save the PIs from excessive grant-related writing, reporting, and meetings, so that they can spend more time in the laboratory.
Since becoming the Director of ION, I have done many things that have antagonized some people here who have different views on how things should be run. However, I come here with a mission of shaping ION into one of the world’s best neuroscience institutes, not to promote my own research or to make friends. I will not be deterred by any antagonism, and am very happy to see that the great majority of my ION colleagues and students remain to be as enthusiastic as I am in working for the mission of ION. Thus, at the beginning of our “growth” period, I am as confident and resolved as ever to continue our long march toward the success.
Mu-ming Poo
P.S. I am enclosing an essay commissioned by Nature Editor for a special “China Supplement” in the latest Nature Asian Edition. In this essay, I describe in more detail the cultural issue I touched upon in our Annual Retreat.

Building Scientific Research Institutions in China – Cultural Reflections
Mu-ming Poo
Modern science as we know it had its origin in Western Europe and flourished over past centuries mainly in the Western world. It was the defeat and humiliation under the power of foreign gunboats that drove the progressive reformers and educators of the late Qing dynasty to import Western science and technology into China. Young students were sent abroad for training, foreign books were translated in large quantities, and Western-style education was introduced into China.
Scientific research activity in the Western sense, however, did not begin until the early 20th century. The founding of Academia Sinica and its associated research institutes in 1928 signified the beginning of modern research institutions in China, yet their activities were seriously disrupted by intermittent wars and political turmoil. “Democracy” and “Science”, hailed by Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century as “Mr. D” and “Mr. S” – the would be saviors of China in the modern world – had little chance to grow on Chinese soil. An internationally competitive tradition of scientific research, whether for technological development or pure intellectual pursuit, has been historically difficult to cultivate in most institutions.
Now in the 21th century, given the soundness of the current Chinese economy, the steady increase in the government’s funding for basic and applied research, and general societal appreciation for the importance of scientific development, it appears that the time has finally come for a sustained effort in building scientific research institutions in China. On the other hand, as someone who has participated in building several academic programs in China in the past two decades, I have come to appreciate that the remaining obstacles to Chinese research institutions achieving excellence in the international arena may reside in factors cultural rather than economic.
Authority versus creativity
The Confucian tradition of respecting the customs and hierarchy in society has cast a long shadow on modern China. The atmosphere of authoritarian rule and political conformity over the past decades did not help to create a social environment that fosters individual creativity, a key element in scientific pursuit. Abiding by teacher’s words and submission to rules and rituals in classic books is the foundation of Confucian education. But it remains debatable whether this educational philosophy had helped or hindered the development of Chinese society. Deference to authority and existing paradigms is a major barrier to scientific breakthrough and technological innovation.
Science education in China is now extensive and rigorous at all levels. To cultivate budding scientists, however, it is important to reinforce the notion that inspiring students in the pursuit of knowledge is more important than teaching knowledge itself, and that textbook and teacher’s words should not be considered the gospel truth. A habit of raising questions needs to be cultivated both inside and outside the classrooms and lecture halls. Challenges to existing evidence, hypotheses and concepts, however naïve and feeble, ought to be encouraged and seriously addressed.
Respect for authorities and the spirit of conformity leave their mark on the style of scientific research as well. Research programs are often characterized and honored as the first in “covering an empty area” in Chinese science, with reference to progress in the West. Research along existing lines, using similar paradigms, often leads to competition at a disadvantaged position. Colleagues in China often complain that their results were not appreciated, while similar work done in Western countries is published in high-profile journals. In fact, strengthening the uniqueness of the work and improving writing and presentation skills will increase the visibility of their work. At Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, we give regular classes on scientific writing, using realistic examples of early drafts of manuscripts to illustrate how to improve scientific presentation and how to write scientific English with precision, conciseness and effectiveness.
While the presentation and writing skills are important, ultimately it is the confidence and prowess in attacking important problems in new scientific frontiers that will lead to major discoveries and international recognition. One recalls the international acclamation given to the Chinese biochemists who first synthesized biologically active insulin in the late 1960’s. We can be confident that truly significant findings will be noticed by the international community.
Encouraging critical attitudes
Related to the social aspect of scientific activity, there is a general problem in scientific communication. Critical scientific exchange between scientists is rarely seen, especially in public. Increasing open and frank dialogue is needed to make scientific conferences in China not merely friendly gathering to enjoy, but also intellectual events to benefit from.
The attitude towards scientific criticism is also very relevant to the submission of scientific papers to international journals. While critical comments by referees may be seen at first glance as being unfair or hostile, one may take them as constructive advice for improving the quality of the work. When a manuscript is rejected, it is often useful to reflect upon the deficiency of the work and go back to the laboratory bench, rather than sending it immediately to a different journal without much improvement. A case in point is the dramatic increase in the number of publications in high quality journals in the last few years from Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, where investigators have made distinct efforts in improving the quality of the work upon rejection of their papers, until the manuscripts eventually became acceptable.
A positive attitude towards scientific critiques will contribute to the establishment of a scientific culture, in which scientific truth is more important than “face saving”, and negative comments are not always taken as personal attacks. Undue courtesy and pretence may be indispensable for maintaining the Confucian order in a traditional Chinese family, but it is detrimental to a research institution, where critical and frank inputs from colleagues are essential for one’s scientific development. For example, the annual retreat of each institute provides an opportunity for cultivating critical interactions. It may be helpful for the organizers of such event to begin with the pre-emptive opening statement that critical or even negative comments are to be taken as devil’s advocates and constructive inputs.
Essential tension
For frequent synergistic interactions among colleagues, a lack of critical mass of well-trained researchers in any given research area has been a major drawback in most Chinese institutions. Since late 1970’s, hundreds of thousands of students and researchers have gone abroad for advanced training. A fraction of these people who have returned to China now constitute a major driving force in scientific institutions. It would be of interest to compare the productivity and achievement of these returnees before and after their return. For those returnees who did not perform as well in China, is this attributable to insufficient research funding or the lack of a stimulating environment? We here focus on the latter.
In major research institutions around the world, there is always an “essential tension” that drives scientists to put their heart and mind to the goal of solving the scientific problem at hand, a tension created by one’s own desire to excel, by challenges from surrounding colleagues and students, by competition with scientific peers, or simply by the pressure of “publish or perish”. An intellectual environment where “adversity breeds creativity” is critical for all forms of creative activity, including scientific discovery and technological innovation. Universal praise for the quality of training, the intelligence and diligence of Chinese students and researchers aside, it is the “essential tension” that can rapidly shape them into high-achievers in major research institutions around the world.
Students and investigators of similar quality abound in many research institutions in China. There is every reason to expect, when proper environment is provided in these institutions, that major scientific achievements “made in China” will soon emerge. Thus, the most urgent task in building research institutions in China is the creation of an intellectual environment with an “essential tension” that is conducive to creative work and scientific development of its existing researchers. Until a large number of returnees can accomplish important work by international standards, a significant flow of scientific talents back to China is unlikely to occur.
Burdens beyond science
Directly linked to the creation of a conducive intellectual environment, many Chinese research institutions are facing two important tasks - the reform of the administrative structure and the establishment of a merit-based system for staff evaluation and resource allocation.
It is not unusual to find an investigator spending most of his/her time dealing with non-scientific issues largely created by administrators both within and above the institution. Complaints of administrative constraints and nuisance appear to be universal, but there is an added hurdle for Chinese scientists. Scientific research, like many other aspects of the society, is under direct government planning and driven by policy agenda. While there are a few granting systems, e.g., National Natural Sciences Foundation, that do provide funding for small individual research grants, significant proportions of funding are awarded to organized research projects involving a large number of investigators, aiming at subjects clearly defined by the government, usually for applied sciences.
This top-down approach in major governmental funding creates an enormous responsibility and power for scientific administrators at all levels. Administrators in the scientific establishment often act as managers who control resources and give instructions rather than provide services to scientists to facilitate their work. Substantial restructuring of the administrative system, including reduced number and increased efficiency of administrative staff and simplification of budgeting and reporting procedures (under reasonable fiscal accountability and oversight), will be important steps for the reform of administrative structure of scientific institutions. Recent restructuring effort at Shanghai Institutes of Biological Sciences is an interesting example. Here supporting offices of several institutes are integrated into central units, with increased efficiency and reduced total staff number. If steps can be taken to prevent the alienation between central office staff and institute researchers and the homogeneous office practices overriding unique institute needs, this approach may prove to be a good model for restructuring a group of institutes in related research areas.
Merit-based practices
The quality of a research institution depends critically on merit-basis appointment, promotion and resource allocation. I am not aware of any research institution in China that has terminated the employment of a scientist simply based on poor research performance, a common practice in major research institutions around the world. In the past, the career of a scientist has not been directly linked to scientific performance. The government has taken care of the entire life of a scientist, from college graduation to retirement, regardless of the performance. The result has been the absence of pressure or incentive to excel.
Reforms are underway in many institutions to break the “iron bowl” by instituting regular reviews of its scientific staff. However, successful merit-based review requires a system for objective evaluation of research performance and achievement of the scientist. This must include confidentiality of the identities of the reviewers. Besides the shortage of qualified reviewers in each scientific area within China, the lack of confidentiality - a concept largely foreign to Chinese institutions - makes objective review extremely difficult. Extensive use of international colleagues, as now practiced by all major research institutions around the world, will help to remedy this situation.
Distinctive goals
The rapid progress in all fields of science in the Western world, fueled in part by a large number of overseas Chinese in recent years, poses a formidable challenge to the development of Chinese research institutions. Are there sufficient resources and will to compete with powerful scientific establishments in the West on major unsolved scientific problems? Unlike the task of an engineering project, scientific progress is much harder to achieve simply by organizing and mobilizing the scientists towards a defined common goal.
The spectacular success of the genome projects has given the impression that the only way forward in science is to organize large-scale projects, but the history of modern biology clearly shows that major breakthroughs mostly originated in small laboratories pursuing their own research interests. The major task for a scientific institution is thus to provide a stable and enriched environment in which individual scientists are free to explore their own scientific interests, with impetus to address major scientific issues in diverse directions. Major outstanding problems in each field are generally well recognized, yet effective approaches to solve these problems are elusive. In the new frontier of neuroscience, for example, there is even serious paucity of attractive hypotheses, not to mention effective methods to deal with complex interacting systems.
Thus, opportunities abound for distinctive new approaches to major unsolved problems.
For individual scientist to compete along the line of research currently pursued by major established laboratories in the West is disadvantageous and likely to be a waste of resources. It will take time to develop distinct approaches to science away from mainstream influences, and it requires patience and persistence on the part of individual scientists and scientific administrators. Furthermore, the perceived scientific isolation by many Chinese scientists may be double-edged. Relative isolation from mainstream scientific circles also allows more room for independent thinking and development of unique approaches. After all, science may evolve as the evolution of species, through "splendid isolation".
A question that had intrigued many historians of Chinese civilization is why modern science had developed in Europe but not in China, while elements of science and technology had clearly emerged in earlier ages of Chinese civilization. After decades of systematic study of Chinese science and technology, Joseph Needham concluded that it was the Chinese form of “bureaucratic feudalism” that inhibited the rise of modern science. A major challenge for China, in the new century, is to overcome the cultural vestige from the past and begin a full-fledged development of its research institutions.
Mu-ming Poo is a Professor and Head of Division of Neurobiology, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at University of California, Berkeley. He also serves concurrently as Director of Institute of Neuroscience, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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