(Chen Tianqiao and his wife Luo Qianqian)
(Yicai Global) Dec. 12 -- Chinese billionaire Chen Tianqiao has announced the establishment of a USD1 billion fund to support brain sciences research. The first batch of USD100 million will be donated to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for brain biology research. It is the latest example of high-profile donations by China's new generation of entrepreneurs to elite American universities. However, it has stirred a debate among China's scientific community as to why Chinese philanthropists would donate money to wealthier Americans rather than country's own scientific research, for which funds are insufficient.
Chen and his wife on Dec. 7 announced the donation program. Chen, who made his wealth in online game industry, said in an interview that he hopes that the donation would help scientists and researchers to carry out in-depth brain research to explore the brain's basic operating mechanism as well as brain malfunction caused by diseases and aging. "How do we cure death? This is the key to our philanthropic vision," Chen told the Financial Times.
Following the announcement of the donation, a comment by Rao Yi, director of the Department of Science at prestigious Peking University, quickly spread through the social networking platform. "The couple's choice to support Caltech, which has a long history in studies of biology and neuroscience, rather than a rising China is a classic mistake," he said.
Qiu Zilong, a research fellow with the Institute of Neuroscience, Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Yicai Global, "It's surprising that entrepreneurs are also interested in brain sciences and basic research, but I also felt it is a bit pity. It would have been a better choice for Chen to donate his money to China at a time when the country's scientific research is fully capable of reaching the international top level."
"Chen's donation is his personal choice, and we should not make improper judgements. But we sincerely hope that this issue can provide an opportunity to discuss ways China can improve its domestic funding system for scientific research and fund management transparency," said Qiu, adding, "The amount of USD100 million may not mean much to an US institution, but it's an astronomical figure for China's scientific research community. For example, each research group of our Chinese Academy of Sciences can be granted research spending of no more than CNY2 million (about USD289,000) every year, and a funding of CNY500,000 to CNY1 million will be quite good for us."
However, Professor Hu Ji from ShanghaiTech University supports Chen. "Chen had mulled over this program for years. As far as I know, he visited scientific research institutes home and abroad for at least three years and communicated with many of them. For basic scientific research, there would be competition among scientists at basic level, but there can be no competition for all the mankind. For example, the Chinese have been benefited by advances in American scientific research in the field of cancer treatment. It's good for wealthy Chinese to be concerned with scientific research. Chen is ahead of the majority of rich Chinese because of his scientific research vision and pursuit. His choice is pure charity and must be encouraged," Hu told Yicai Global.
Though most scientists interviewed by Yicai Global agreed that currently the basic research on cranial nerves in China is developing rapidly and likely to catch up with the US, they all hold the opinion that Chen's choice of funding the brain science researches in the US rather than China mainly owes to the sound donation tradition in the US, where there are perfect donation systems in place to offer donors access to science research fields.
Researcher Wang Zuoren, vice president of the Institute of Neuroscience, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Yicai Global, "According to the data offered by Rao Yi, the US government invests USD5 billion in neuroscience research each year, whereas that is merely USD200 million in China, only four percent of the former. If we incorporate the investments from American private funds, we would find even a greater gap, which highlights the urgent need for attracting private donations as well as demanding the need for self-questioning by Chinese scientists."
Researcher Wang Xiaoqun from the Institute of Biophysics, China Academy of Sciences, who once served in the Stem Cell Research Center of University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) told Yicai Global, "Currently, most science research funds come from the government while private capitals are less accessible by science research sector. We should encourage more domestic donations and establish and improve necessary mechanisms."
Scientists also agree that Chinese research institutions are less attractive to private donors because of lack of tax incentives and less transparent fiscal system in China.