Shi Yigong (施一公; born May 1967) is a Chinese biophysicist in the field of protein X-ray crystallography and is the Dean of School of Life Sciences of Tsinghua University.
Shi Yigong received his bachelor’s degree from Tsinghua University. In 1995 when receiving his PhD degree in Biophysics from Johns Hopkins University, he has determined the crystal structure of several critical apoptotic proteins, including apaf-1, DIAP1, and the BIR3 domain of XIAP. He was the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor in the department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. In June 2008, he was selected as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. However, he rejected the award upon resigning his position at Princeton University in order to pursue his career at Tsinghua University, becoming the dean of the School of Life Sciences there. In 2003, he was appointed a Chair Professor of Tsinghua’s Department of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology. He was appointed Vice Director of Tsinghua’s Institute of Biomedicine and Vice Dean of Tsinghua’s Department of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology in 2007. He was appointed Dean of Tsinghua’s School of Life Sciences (replacing the Department of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology) in 2009.
Shi renounced U.S. citizenship in 2011.
The biologist who gave up US citizenship and returned to China
The neurobiologist Rao Yi had the ill fortune six years ago to buy a “rotten tail building”. In Chinese the phrase refers to a development that is left unfinished when the funds are embezzled. It was part of a sharp learning curve as Rao returned from the US, where he had worked for more than two decades, in a bid to further Chinese science.
On this bright morning in Beijing, as children play in padded coats under a tree nearby, it is hard to see any signs of rot. The quaint paved roads and sleepy porches in Rao’s gated compound, a 25-minute walk from Peking University, bear some resemblance to suburban America, although the red lanterns that hang from some of the doors are distinctly Chinese. Today, the site is calm and peaceful but Rao assures me that the developers behind the smart new complex are now serving time in prison for misappropriation of funds.
Here in China it is an all too common story. Rao paid for his four-bedroom house in 2007 but the money disappeared and the building works stalled. He had to wait a further four years to move in. “A lot of people went on protest,” says Rao, gesturing vaguely to his neighbours. “I did not because if I got involved, they thought it would be too much publicity. They said you can if you want but if you don’t it would be . . . ” he pauses, “ . . . nice.” Exactly who said this remains unclear. When probed, Rao waves his hands dismissively. “People called,” is all he will say.
That someone would want to silence Rao’s opinions is hardly a surprise given his high profile and outspoken views. In 2007 he made a decision that shocked his peers, giving up his position as head of a scientific institute at Northwestern University in Illinois to take up a post as dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University.
Rao resigned as dean last September in an effort to set an example to other Chinese people who he believes “try to hold on to ‘official’ positions for too long”. However, he continues to work as a professor and as director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the university. Dining room In 2008 the Princeton molecular biologist Shi Yigong also chose his homeland over the US after rejecting a $10m research grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and accepting a job as dean of life sciences at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
Both Rao and Shi were driven by a sense of moral obligation to China and, for Rao, a desire to return home. “In most of the textbooks in middle school and high school [in China] we are still following Einstein – nothing Chinese,” says Rao. “At some point textbooks have to have some contribution from China, otherwise what is our value to the human race?”
Their homecoming appeared to herald a reverse of the Chinese brain drain that had led the best and brightest to seek work abroad. But Rao’s return has not been smooth. In 2010 Rao and Shi published a scathing editorial in Science magazine that confronted the misuse of research funds and corrupt cronyism that has plagued Chinese science, consigning much of it to mediocrity. “Rampant problems in research funding – some attributable to the system and others cultural – are slowing down China’s potential pace of innovation,” read a summary of the paper.
Sitting room The paper’s claims were rebutted by the Ministry of Science and Technology (an institution Rao had previously recommended abolishing). In 2011 Rao was excluded from the list of preliminary candidates for new academicians in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the country’s highest advisory body. “They decided to elect people who are far worse than us,” says Rao. “It’s very perverted.”
As bright light streams through the windows of the sunroom, such frustrations seem far away. Rao shares the house with his wife, also a scientist, and their teenage son, David (their daughter is studying in the US). “When Nobel laureates visit we feed them Chinese [dishes]. We have a helper at home. I’m very bad at cooking,” says Rao, pointing towards his modest dining room. Rao designed the Chinese-style interior of the house himself. He is most proud of the two large bookshelves packed with history books. “I put all the English books in the Chinese bookshelf and all the Chinese books in the modern bookshelf. That is what we are – a composite,” he says grinning.
Entertainment room in the basement After he returned to China, Rao renounced his US citizenship (although his children remain American). The decision largely rested on his unease following the aftermath of 9/11. “What [President George Bush] did was immoral . . . You cannot put people in Guantánamo Bay without trial,” he says.
“With Obama it is the same thing. That is a huge disappointment,” he continues. “It made me think, ‘Do I really want to live in the US forever or do I admit that I really belong to China?’ Yes, China has lots of problems, but on the other hand, that is where I belong and I can try in my small way to make it better.”
In attempting to make it better, Rao focuses on what he knows best: science. Articles on his blog can attract thousands of hits and he is aware that by being “outspoken I generate enemies but I also generate very strong supporters – they know what I stand for and don’t stand for”.
Science, Rao believes, is there either to push the frontier of human knowledge or to help a nation develop, and “for either of those, Chinese science is not up to the task”. Both the misuse of funds and fabrication of research is a problem. Chinese universities often give out cash prizes and benefits, including housing, based on the quantity, rather than the quality, of published work. (In 2009 Acta Crystallographica Section E, a UK-based journal, was forced to retract 70 papers by Chinese researchers who had used fake data).
Shelf of historical books in English Education in China constitutes another challenge. “Schools emphasise exams which are based on facts or answers that are already known. Students are not trained to think about the uncertainties and to tackle unknown questions. It does not encourage curiosity or innovation,” says Rao. At the heart of the matter is the cultural phenomenon of guanxi (or connections) that binds Chinese society together. “Everything you are doing is trying to make your parents happy, your neighbours happy, your superiors happy. You must disregard the opinions of others to be creative and to come up with the secrets no one knows,” says Rao.
His wonder of science is encapsulated in a row of photographs from space and models of rockets that line the top of his bookshelves. They are a reminder of the 1950s Chinese space programme. “He was a great Chinese scientist,” Rao says of Qian Xuesen, the leader of the programme, before shaking his head. No Chinese-born scientist has ever received a Nobel Prize for research in the mainland. “Every year Nobel Prizes are passed around, China feels a little awkward.”
It is time to go. As Rao stands on the porch, and pulls his Mandarin-collar jacket tighter around himself to fend off the cold, he makes a final comment about the uncertain future of science in China. “We will see,” he says with a hopeful smile, “eventually, we will contribute to the world.”
Rao struggles when asked to choose a favourite object. He walks around listlessly picking things up and putting them back down. He studies his bookshelf, trying to choose his best-loved book. “I have so few objects,” he mutters. “A picture of my kids maybe?” He then decides that a real child will be better than a photo of one. He calls down his son David, who has been dozing upstairs. “Can David be one?” he asks, before realising that David is not an object, “I’m a very non-materialistic person.”
Eventually he settles on a white mug, a set of four, that he designed himself to represent his work in neurobiology. Red Chinese characters across the top spell out “Peking University” and it is decorated with an illustration of flies, mice, monkeys and humans, the subjects of his research.
China is setting up its own version of America’s Caltech to rival US in innovation
China is creating its own version of America’s Caltech – a top global science and technology university – by establishing the country’s first doctorate-granting private institution focused on high-level research and innovation.
Westlake University, which is to enrol its first 130 PhD students for the new academic year starting in September, will become “first-class in Asia, joining legions of other world-class institutions”, Shi Yigong, a prominent biophysicist who is leading the new institute’s preparation team, said.
State education authorities this week approved the project in Hangzhou, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province.
“In five years, our faculty research abilities will be on a par with those of Tokyo University, Tsinghua University, Peking University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology,” Shi said in a December speech that outlined the then-proposed university’s ambitions.
For a start, like its US role model, the California Institute of Technology, the new Chinese university – which has received extensive funding from China’s government and business leaders – will only take in students studying for doctorates.
Chinese innovation with US characteristics? Maybe China and the West aren’t that far apart, in business at least
Within a decade, enrolment is expected to reach 5,000 students, after the school begins to admit undergraduate, according to its website.
With its campus in Hangzhou’s Sandun town, the new university’s speciality will be high-level research and innovation, an area in which China is increasingly closing the gap with other nations, including the US.
“In 15 years, every indicator of our university will be on a par with that of Caltech,” Shi said. It “will be regarded as one of the best universities, not just in Asia but around the world”.
Shi, who will become a full-time Westlake faculty member in January, after stepping down as Tsinghua University’s vice-president, raised eyebrows in Western academic circles when he left a US position as a tenured professor at Princeton University a decade ago to teach at Tsinghua, a highly respected Beijing-based research institution.
Westlake is to have four institutes, covering biology, basic medicine, natural sciences and advanced technology.
However, a Beijing-based material science professor who declined to be identified for this article said he was sceptical that the new university would provide quality programmes for undergraduate students, or that it could attract top full-time scientists.
“Undergraduate education is the core part of a university, and so far we have not seen a clear plan on this aspect [of Westlake],” said the scholar, who emphasised that undergraduate education measures the difference between a university and a research institute.
He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the university would be able to lure cutting-edge full-time scientists.
“It’s not highly possible for many overseas top-level scientists, especially those Nobel Prize laureates whom Westlake vowed to recruit, to work full-time for it,” the professor said.
Although state authorities just this week gave Westlake the green light to open, plans for the institution have been in the works for years.
It already has held six global recruitment drives to fill 58 teaching positions, hiring 34 people so far out of more than 2,500 applicants, it said.
Shi and six other top scientists and scholars spearheaded the project’s establishment in 2015, lobbying the Chinese government to set up a “new-type, privately run research university” crucial to the needs of the changing Chinese economy.
The Zhejiang government’s willingness to make the institution a priority in the province’s development strategy helped the proposal win Beijing’s support.
Much of the project’s financial support came from both the government and the business world.
The Hangzhou government injected 400 million yuan (HK$496 million; US$63.6 million) into the proposed university last year. Land was allocated at no charge.
Among the leading Chinese entrepreneurs who have donated to the institute are Pony Ma and Chen Yidan, founders of technology giant Tencent; Wang Jianlin, chairman of property developer and cinema chain conglomerate Wanda Group; Wu Yajun, chairwoman of property developer Longfor; and Zhang Lei, founder of investment company Hillhouse Capital.
Donors also include The Kerry Group Kuok Foundation, a charitable organisation focused on poverty alleviation in China.
Li Jiayang, a plant gene scientist, told the South China Morning Post in an interview that Westlake was launched to meet the demand for science and technology research posed by China’s rapid growth.
“They chose to focus on a limited number of majors and on a small scale, rather than [on a] big scale, in order to cultivate this small group of students well,” Li said.
“Besides that, this university is supported by the government and [has the involvement of] globally renowned scientists. So it’s likely that they will succeed.”
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, said the new university’s value lay in its ability to contribute to higher education reform in China, rather than being another Peking University or Tshinghua University.