I just returned from a genomics conference in Shenzhen, China, where I had been invited to put a panel together and chair a session designed to encourage better scientific communication between scientists in China and their colleagues in other parts of the globe. The meeting, sponsored by BGI, provided me with a wonderful opportunity to learn about the types of research being carried out not only in China but elsewhere in Asia as well.
Not much more needs to be said about China’s growing economic clout, unless you have not seen recent news stories on China in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal or watched international coverage on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News, Bloomberg Television, or any of the Sunday chat shows. All I can state is you’ve got to see it [China] to believe it!
Shenzhen was designated the first special economic zone in China in 1980 by then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. I had the opportunity to visit this nascent city in 1988 while on my way to a biotech conference in Singapore. I remember going through a high wire fence and then being immediately surrounded by a score of people—some without a leg, others without an arm, many dressed in rags, and one person covered with sores and who could have been a leper judging by something that looked to be the remnant of a nose. In other words, a group of extremely poor people. I also recall seeing only three or four five-story buildings in Shenzhen and numerous unpaved roads.
Jump to November 2011. Leaving the airport in a cab and passing through Shenzhen on ultrasleek highways on the journey to the conference venue, I was amazed to see dozens and dozens of skyscrapers, many architecturally eye-catching. This view went on for over six miles! Not one beggar in sight.
Regarding biotechnology, China has become one of the world’s scientific hotspots. Every global pharma firm has a presence there, often in Shanghai or Beijing. With 1.3 billion potential consumers, China represents an enormous market for new drugs and medical devices. Yes, there are still problems with intellectual property protection, corruption among some high-level officials, and various degrees of concern over regulatory issues. But both my Chinese hosts and a number of non-Chinese scientists attending the meeting assured me that the Chinese government was working hard to deal with these uncertainties as they know the importance of creating and maintaining a strong, trustworthy, and transparent bioindustry.
For years China was known for its pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities and its copycat products. One particular rap against Chinese science, which still largely exists today, was that it was not innovative.
Well, using the Shenzhen conference as one example, I believe this view of Chinese research efforts is exaggerated. Innovation was actually one of the key conference themes. Here is a sampling of some of the conference presentations by Chinese scientists: Identification of Elite-variety Tag SNPs (ETASs), A new approach unraveling loci underlying crop improvement; Genomic Medicine in China; An In-depth Profiling of the Human RNA Editome;, Transgenic Handmade Cloned Pig,one approach with many opportunities; and Evolutionary Fate of Duplicated Genes in Brassiceae Revealed by Whole-Genome Sequence Analysis and RNA-Seq.
All the presenters at these conference sessions were highly credentialed scientifically and many ran their own labs or served as the head of a major research department at a Chinese biotech company or institute. Several had returned to China after years of working in the U.S.
So on both economic and scientific levels, China just ain’t what it used to be. At least on its coastal margins, China is modern, industrious, energetic, and increasingly innovative in its approach to biotechnology.
Many economists and political experts have been saying for years that we have now entered the Asian century. After this, my third trip to China, I agree.