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Both China and US benefit from transnational scientific exchange

Author  :  CHU GUOFEI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-09-26

“Transnational scientific exchange has also contributed to the scientific development of the United States. US president Donald Trump’s restrictions on international scientific exchange and immigration have met with opposition from American scientists. That’s because these restrictions are also a major loss to the US scientific community,” Wang Zuoyue, a professor of history at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, said at the lecture “S. S. Chern, Hua Luogeng, and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study” at Tsinghua University recently.

Wang is engaged in the study of the modern and contemporary history of science and technology in China and the United States. In 2003, he became the first ethnic Chinese to win the acclaimed Price-Webster Prize from the History of Science Society. His book In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America has been highly praised by the famous journal Science.

During the lecture, Wang discussed the academic experiences of S. S. Chern and Hua Luogeng in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s through letters and other forms of historical data. The two mathematicians enjoyed academic visits at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) and exchanged views with American counterparts in 1943–1946 and 1946–1948 respectively. Wang analyzed Chern’s decision in 1948 to return and stay in the United States, Hua’s to return to China in 1950 (he had been teaching at the University of Illinois from 1948), and the question of who benefited from China-US scientific exchanges.

Wang said that considering that there have been so many Chinese scientists with experiences studying in America in the 20th century, the influence coming from the United States was undoubtedly the biggest, and the subsequent scientific exchanges have greatly promoted the development of Chinese science. In 1943, Chern went to the US for academic visits. After returning to China in 1946, he opened mathematics classes and cultivated a group of outstanding mathematicians. Similarly, after returning to China in 1950, Hua worked in many important fields such as mathematics and computer science. At the same time, the contributions of Chinese scholars to the United States are also undeniable. Chern and Hua published articles, cultivated students and communicated with American scientists in the United States.

Chern explained in late 1942 in a letter to Oswald Veblen, a mathematician at the IAS, that his visit would be not only important to himself but also to the development of Chinese science. Veblen may have been inspired by Chern’s letter because he immediately wrote to the US State Department to advocate for funding for the visit as a way for the United States to help China develop in the field of science. Actually, the help was not one-sided. It can be said that Chern’s first visit at IAS in 1943–1946 was the most creative period of his life. He published many famous papers in mathematics during this period. Chern also helped his American counterparts figure out the research of the French geometry master Elie Cartan. Chern’s work greatly promoted the development of American science, especially in mathematics, Wang continued.

Wang added that after the Second World War, the Americanization of international science was also accompanied by the internationalization of American science. Since World War II, the United States has been leading the world from the perspective of research funds, academic leaders and Nobel Prize winners. For example, around 54% of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences have come from the United States, exceeding the total number of winners in all other countries. On the other hand, the composition of these scientists showed significant internationalization, and about one-third were born abroad. And this one-third does not include scholars who had not yet taken US citizenships at the time of the award, such as Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. In other words, the actual ratio is even higher. In addition, the visiting scholars in the United States (such as Chern and Hua at that time) and international students were a significant group. These “temporary immigrants” have also made great contributions to the development of American science.

Wang said that global challenges such as climate change, infectious diseases, agriculture, population, health, nuclear arms control and artificial intelligence need to be solved by cooperation of scientists from all countries, especially Chinese and American scientists. Trump’s policy is now a temporary setback, and it is hoped that China-US scientific cooperation would be continued and strengthened in the future.

Editor: Yu Hui

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