Everywhere you look in this corner of Shanghai, there are mice. For Wang Zhugang, this is cause for great delight. After spending several years researching molecular medicine at New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Wang received a call from an official in his native Shanghai. Would he be interested in returning home? Wang initially declined. He was working for one of the world's top scientific institutions, and he recalled from his undergraduate days the wretched state of Chinese labs. The official presented a different vision: Wang would be given tens of millions of dollars to run a new state-of-the-art facility. A place at the best school in town would be reserved for his daughter. And, best of all, he would be given thousands and thousands of mice. In 2001, Wang founded the Shanghai Research Center for Biomodel Organisms, which in just five years has bred more than 100 types of genetically engineered mice to help decode diseases like cancer and diabetes. Next year, Wang will move into a new $25 million lab that will house 150,000 mice, compared to the mere 7,000 he keeps today. "My colleagues who stayed in the U.S. are still cooking in their labs, while I have the opportunity to run an entire research center," says the 45-year-old biologist. "If you move back to China, you have more room to develop your potential. It's a very exciting environment."
Could Asia be home to the next scientific revolution? We all know of the region's rich history of innovationpaper, the magnetic compass, a smallpox inoculation, even the number zero originated in Asia. In the first few millenniums of human civilization, no other continent could rival it. Yet China, which invented gunpowder in the 10th century, failed to adequately develop the technology and succumbed to Western cannons by the 19th century. As its rulers turned inward, the Middle Kingdom even abandoned the mechanical clock, which it had devised centuries before. India, despite a proud mathematical and astronomical tradition, also proceeded to slumber for centuries. Meanwhile, the West, with its Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution and Space Race, became synonymous with scientific achievement. Many years ahead of the rest of the scientific pack, America, Europe and, more recently, Japan overwhelmingly claimed the economic fruits of innovation.
But the rest of Asia is now making up for lost time. Not content to subsist on the lowest rung of the technological ladder by churning out endless Christmas-tree ornaments and copycat computer parts, emerging Asian economies are tying their futuresand their national prideto the miracles of science. It's not an impossible vision: Just look at how Japan transformed itself from a producer of cheap transistor radios to a world-class innovator. To foster their dreams, Asian nations have dramatically increased their government science spending: between 1995 and 2005, China more than doubled the percentage of its GDP invested in R&D, from 0.6% to 1.3%, while South Korea has raised its funding from $9.8 billion in 1994 to $19.4 billion in 2004. Such cash infusions have lured back many seasoned Asian researchers from the West, where science budgets are stagnating or, in some countries, even dwindling. (In the U.S., for instance, federal basic-research outlays for physical sciences and engineering as a percentage of GDP have been declining for the past 30 years, to less than 0.05% in 2003.) China alone has welcomed back 200,000 returnees, the majority of whom earned science degrees, since it began sending students overseas in the 1980s. The science push has already yielded results for Asia's developing economies: their share of global high-tech exports rose from 7% in 1980 to 25% in 2001, while the U.S. share declined from 31% to 18%, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation. At the same time, the Asian share of all published scientific papers climbed from 16% in 1990 to 25% in 2004.
By 2010, 90% of all Ph.D.-holding scientists and engineers will be living in Asia, according to a prediction by the late Nobel-prizewinning chemist Richard Smalley, who died last year. That claim might sound outlandish, but already 78% of science and engineering doctorates are earned outside the U.S., and nearly one-third of those awarded in the U.S. go to non-Americans. In particular, Asians are targeting younger scientific fields that hold the potential for rich discoveries. Just a couple years after making nanotechnology a national priority, China became the second-highest contributor to nanotechnology journals in 2004. "Asia is becoming the next destination for innovation," says Sri Kumar, who returned from Chicago to Bangalore last year to set up a biotech venture-capital fund. "Look at all the cutting-edge firms in the U.S.: almost half the staff are Asians. And people are coming home now. With all the talent and training that's here, there's enough to start a revolution."
Revolution isn't a concept usually associated with Singapore, with its manicured lawns and pristine shopping malls. But in 2000, the city-state decided to foment creativity by setting aside 200 hectares for a vast science park called One North, a reference to Singapore's latitude. The Field of Dreams approach to innovationbuild it and the researchers will comehas met with its share of skeptics. But in just three years, the scientists at One North's lavishly equipped life-sciences hub, Biopolis, have been awarded 54 patents for everything from drug-loaded contact lenses and artificial-bone implants to a diagnostic kit for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Next year, Biopolis will be joined by the less catchily named Fusionopolis, a physics- and engineering-research base. Although Singapore has sent 500 science students abroad to pursue advanced degreesat an average cost to the government of $380,000 per headthe island nation of 4.4 million is simply too small to rely on local talent to fill One North's laboratories. So Singapore has imported top foreign scientists like Sydney Brenner, a Nobel-prizewinning geneticist from the U.S., and Edison Liu, former director of clinical science at the U.S. National Cancer Institute (see sidebar). Pharmaceutical giants like Novartis and Eli Lilly have also set up research centers at Biopolis, as has an Australian stem-cell venture helmed by British cloning specialist Alan Colman of Dolly the sheep fame. "People are queuing up to come here now," says David Lane, a pioneering cancer researcher lured from Britain's University of Dundee in 2004 to head the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology at Biopolis.
If Singapore is the test-tube baby of Asian scienceenjoying a perfectly controlled environment and regimented doses of cashChina is the hungry teenager with far grander dreams. Beijing's top leaders, nearly all of whom have backgrounds in engineering, announced plans in February to nearly double the country's current R&D spending of $29.4 billion a year by 2010. Much of the funding is flowing into fields where China believes it can make a long-term impact, either because the disciplines are relatively new (genomics and nanotech) or because progress in the West has been impeded by ethical concerns (stem-cell research and genetically modified crops). After years of political mistrust of scienceMao Zedong even denounced EinsteinChina awarded more than 30,000 doctorates in 2004, up from 12,000 in 2001. The nation also graduated 200,000 engineers in 2004. Government incentives, like hefty tax breaks and prized spots at the nation's 100-plus new science parks, have attracted an army of returnees like mouse researcher Wang. "Sea turtles," as these prodigal sons and daughters are called, now make up an astonishing 81% of members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
This brain gain has accelerated China's science drive. In the last five years, a coterie of returnee researchers in Beijing has outpaced the competition in the U.S. and Japan by becoming the first to sequence the rice, silkworm, chicken and pig genomes. Meanwhile, Sheng Huizhen, a Chinese biologist who worked for 11 years at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), returned in 1999 to do stem-cell research in China because ethical considerations were making what she wanted to do nearly impossible in America. The Shanghai government, by contrast, gave her $875,000 to start a lab, now located in a makeshift space carved out of a converted kindergarten. Despite the lackluster surroundings, Sheng announced in 2003 that she had extracted stem cells from a hybrid rabbit-human embryo created from human skin cells and rabbit eggs. Although the results were not published in any top-flight international journal, a team of researchers in Britain announced earlier this year that it's trying to replicate her work. "This is an open field, and China is willing to allow you to experiment," says Sheng. "Coming back was too good an offer to refuse." Many of the 750 multinational R&D centers based in Chinaup from 200 in 2002are also run by returnees. Innovations from these centers include enhancements of Microsoft's Web-search technology and Motorola innovations that allow users to snap pictures of business cards, automatically filing the information in the phone's database. The scientific breakthroughs have been so plentiful that the U.S. National Science Foundation set up a Beijing branch in May to monitor Chinese progress.