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27-Aug-2016 16:03
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In The Spotlight

Science editor-in-chief and Science Asia news editor meet with Chinese premier

By Ginger Pinholster

"Imagine if a U.S. president met for two hours with a Chinese scientist," Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts said, describing his 30 September visit with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. "It was extraordinary."

Alberts, in Beijing to deliver lectures at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Tsinghua University, joined Science Asia News Editor Richard Stone for the rare personal meeting with the Chinese Premier and Chen Zhu, China's Minister of Health. Chen was instrumental in arranging the meeting, which was also attended by Science contributing correspondent Hao Xin.

Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts, in China.
Photo courtesy of Richard Stone.

"I met Chen Zhu 10 years ago when he participated in a U.S. National Academy of Sciences program called the Frontiers of Science," Alberts explained. "He has been a good friend, and I was very pleased to spend an afternoon and evening with him while I was in China."

According to a Xinhua News report that aired on China Central Television (CCTV): "Wen spoke highly of the important role of the Science Magazine in advancing global scientific and technological development. He expressed his wish to further strengthen cooperation with the magazine in order to make a greater contribution to the global development of science and technology and to human progress."

The meeting between Alberts and Wen, who heads China's government, working closely with President Hu Jintao, coincided with the 30th anniversary of the first AAAS delegation to China, as well as the first anniversary of the opening of Science's Beijing bureau.

The visit also took place in tandem with two other key AAAS activities in China. Past AAAS President Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden had visited China at the same time to deliver the first-ever AAAS-Chinese Academy of Sciences Distinguished Lectureship on Sustainability. Raven was joined on his trip by Tom Wang, AAAS director for international cooperation, who also serves as deputy director for the new AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. Catherine Matacic, who runs the EurekAlert! Chinese Web site at AAAS, was in Beijing, too, to coordinate what was believed to be the first China-based press conference related to a Science paper--a multilingual event captured in audio format (streaming Real audio or downloadable MP3).

Both an editorial written by Wen and a transcript of the conversation between Alberts and the premier will appear in Science later in October. (Further details regarding Wen's editorial and Alberts' interview with him will remain under wraps for now, but credentialed reporters will be able to access embargoed information in advance on EurekAlert! Chinese approximately one week before the Science publication date. Reporters only may contact Matacic at 202-326-6715, or, to request embargoed media materials. All others will be able to access information at the Science Web site when the articles are published by the journal.)

Wen's editorial will be the latest in a series of opinion pieces that Alberts has invited from international leaders and experts such as Enric Banda of the European Science Foundation (10 July), Bojie Fu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (31 July), Ismail Serageldin of Egypt's Library of Alexandria (8 August), Jorge Allende of the University of Chile (29 August) and many others.

Showcasing such diverse perspectives is part of Alberts' strategy to provide Science with an increasingly international focus. "The scientific enterprise is international, and we can all learn from innovations, discoveries, and events in other countries," Alberts said. "For example, it will greatly benefit science in the United States and Europe to expand and strengthen cooperation with emerging scientific centers of excellence such as China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere."

Chinese leaders place a very high value on innovation and the promise of scientific advances, Alberts noted, adding that in a country of 1.3 billion people with limited resources, the leadership is quite clear that their nation's future depends upon effectively leveraging scientific know-how. "Science is revered," he said. "In fact, science appears to be much more important to the Chinese people and to Chinese leaders than it is here. Wen Jiabao's comments to me clearly reveal his passion for both science and technology, as well as his recognition of their central importance to society."

Scientific achievement by Chinese scientists and engineers has turned sharply upward in recent years, based on scholarly journal articles and patents, and Alberts said that he was extremely impressed by the caliber of students at Tsinghua University and Peking University. Among 500,000 young people who took a university entry exam in one particular province, for instance, only 70 were accepted, according to a student who spoke to Alberts during his visit.

Alberts, president emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and chair of the National Research Council from 1993 until 2005, was named Science editor-in-chief as of 1 March 2008. A professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, Alberts has special interests in the areas of science education and international scientific cooperation.

His visit to China included an effort to promote interactions between young scientists and global business leaders who take part in the World Economic Forum; dinner with Zhou Guangzhao, former president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the China Association of Science and Technology (CAST); meetings with China's Minister of Science Wan Gang, U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt, CAS President Lu Yongxiang and more. His lecture at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, on "Biology Past and Biology Future," examined dramatic advances in understanding the "chemistry of life." During another talk at Tsinghua University, on "Science and the World's Future," Alberts noted the importance of scientific problem-solving skills for rich and poor nations alike.

"Bruce joined AAAS and Science after many years of international scientific leadership. His activities have resulted in cooperative relationships with an array of influential scientists, engineers and leaders in other countries," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science. "And one of those connections was able to help facilitate the meeting with the Chinese premier. We also were very fortunate to have an award-winning reporter like Rich Stone on staff who has become very well respected in the Chinese scientific and journalism communities, and thus could help make the right connections for this unique interview."

Since opening the Science Beijing bureau last October, Stone has covered major events such as the devastating earthquake in Sichuan last May. His reporting has ensured that a steady stream of news and feature stories from China appear in Science. He also has sought to raise Science's profile in China by appearing as a guest commentator on China's English-language TV station, CCTV-9. Stone described the meeting with Wen at the government leaders' compound in the heart of Beijing, Zhongnanhai, as a thrill. "I can't imagine a better way to cap our first year in China," he said.

In 2007, AAAS Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian and Wang helped to formalize agreements with two of China's leading scientific organizations, outlining plans for collaboration related to publishing, science education, sustainability, science policy, and opportunities for women scientists and engineers. The AAAS agreements with CAS and CAST call for cooperative efforts to translate and disseminate educational materials and high-impact Science papers, among other efforts.

"This meeting demonstrated the seriousness that China's most senior officials place on science and technology as a critical driver to their broader development plans," Turekian said. "There are only a handful of leaders in the world that would commit this sort of time to meet with a foreign scientist. AAAS and Science were grateful for the opportunity."

Ginger Pinholster is director of the office of public programs at AAAS.