Since China's May Fourth Movement in 1919, Chinese intellectuals have wholeheartedly pursued the goal of making science take root. Everyone has his or her opinion as to how to make science take root, but a sound development in basic sciences should be a common consensus. The development of basic sciences, however, is slow and the results are not dazzling. As compared to those big projects with catchy slogans, it is naturally difficult for the development of basic sciences to win support from political figures.
The debate in technology circles about the development of artificial satellites 10 years ago gives us some insight into the situation. Those who were in favor of developing a satellite believed our country had the necessary strength and it would not be inappropriate to invest resources in the endeavor. Those against the project, however, believed attempting to launch satellites was by no means urgent, given the country's technological level. Political considerations and the fight between the Executive and Legislative Yuans, however, turned a supposedly rational debate into a farce. In retrospect, how much money have we spent on the satellite project, a supposedly "fixed policy" which has been promoted for a decade? What have we accomplished? The earlier dispute has already become outmoded. Perhaps we no longer care about the lesson we learned from the dispute.
After the satellite project, another debate in science and technology circles was on whether to invest in the US Superconducting Super Collider project. The debate in Taiwan soon quieted down because US Congress voted against the project, which could have cost US$8 billion.
Still, we failed to learn our lesson from this incident. In recent years, the cooperative efforts between academic circles at home and abroad have accelerated the formation of big domestic research projects. Various national projects such as the genome project, nanotechnology and a host of biotechnology projects have become mainstream projects. In the case of these national projects, the use of a top-down policy model has merit because this method of policy implementation is a worldwide trend. Unfortunately, the plans for most of these projects are hurriedly formulated, veiled by exquisite packaging by the establishment. For example, the science and technology community rarely takes the time for serious consideration of how to promote the most advanced fields.
We were not honest with ourselves when the time had come to do some self-examination. Where is Taiwan's place in the frontiers of science? What advantages do we have in international competition? More importantly, what kind of terms and conditions do we lack in our environment? For example, consider the problems of personnel shortage and inflexible personnel management. We lack experience in promoting big projects.
To promote big projects in Taiwan, I believe we should use a step-by-step approach and start with smaller pilot projects. After accumulating experience and talent in policy implementation, we can then appraise these pilot projects and give long-term support to only those research teams that have truly produced desirable results. In fact, most of the big research projects in other countries are managed this way to ensure fairness of appraisal and prevent the waste of valuable resources. At present, whether the various domestic projects will turn out to be another version of the "satellite project" or not will put the wisdom of every leader to the test.
Big research projects have mushroomed in Taiwan like "bamboo shoots after the spring rain." Because the policies which govern these projects take a leading role in the nation's technological development, they squeeze out basic sciences. Unless a research is associated with a discipline recognized by foreign scholars or a subject related to some advanced national project, it is often difficult to conduct independent research in the area. While the funds for independent research grows in other countries, the funds for domestic independent research have shrunk. Frankly, I worry that big projects will not only be unable to produce significant results but also cause irreversible damage to Taiwan's development in basic sciences.
Particularly as management becomes a science and success becomes quantifiable, basic research has become more like construction contract work with teamwork and deadline requirements. As research becomes corporatized, the researchers -- independents or those participating in big projects -- are likely to gradually lose enthusiasm and creativity to the administrative requirements that call for quarterly written reports and oral reports due every five months. Enthusiasm and creativity are the two most important factors in determining the success or failure of research. There is much similarity between scientific research and artistic work, particularly the spiritual aspect. Both require a certain degree of freedom and time to produce desired results. When we propose the development of basic sciences, should we not leave some room for enthusiasm and creativity to drive advances?
Chou Chen-kung is a professor of life sciences at National Yang Ming University.
Translated by Grace Shaw