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Small is beautiful: Nobel laureate YT Lee

Taiwan is emerging as one of the centres for research and development. Yuan Tseh Lee is one of those scientist who have returned back to Taiwan in order to set up a research centre. Here is an excerpt of an interview during his visit to NAST..
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YUAN TSEH Lee is a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry with other scientists DR Herschbach and JC Polanyi in 1986. He was born in Hsinchu, Taiwan on November 19, 1936. After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1986, Lee continued his research in Chemical Dynamics. In January 1994, after 32 years of research and teaching in the US, he returned to Taiwan, to serve as the president of Academia Sinica. During his tenure as the president of Academia Sinica, Lee has worked hard to improve the quality of research. He has also taken an active role in promoting scientific and cultural developments in Taiwan. Lee retired from his position as president of Academia Sinica in October 2006. The renowned scientist Lee has recently visited the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). His ideas are very important for the development of science and technology for poor and developing countries. Here is an excerpt from the interview.

Its been a long time you lived in US as a US citizen. Why go back to Taiwan now?

In 1994, my colleague in Berkely betted that Lee would return to California within six month, they don’t believe I can do hard research in Taiwan as well. I told them, I want to prove a point why I want to return to Taiwan, to the small Island in Asia and do excellent research, which all you guys are doing here. The last 14 years did prove the point.

Kindly tell us about the establishment of Academia Sinica?

Academia Sinica, I think would be appointing a new president very soon. In all we have 220 members in the assembly. Out of which150 of them live in America. Only 70 members are working in Taiwan. So when I returned to Taiwan and set up a new institute, I bought an airline ticket and persuaded some of the outstanding professors in US to return back to Taiwan. So during the last 14 years we have many scientists from major universities who have come back to Taiwan.

First role?

First I pressurised the government to re-increase the science budget upto10 per cent a year. And so now we have managed to reach about 2.7 per cent of GDP and would soon be reaching 3 per cent within the next three years.

What should be done for the development of science and technology in poor countries?

When the scientist like me opens a basic research centre, we want to find some new knowledge and discover something new. And, many people always asked me, what have you done? When you’ve discovered, contribute it to economy. I said most of my students will find a job, 1/3 will go to the university to become a faculty member, another 1/3 will go to the national laboratory in the US, another 1/3 will join the industry sector.

Could we solve all these problems through the industry?

You can’t solve all these problems when you are talking about industry. For example, with IBM going into copper technology, we have a problem in the service contract in one of the post in India. And it is interesting when we use it in all the computers and then you look at the semiconductors. When the phenomena of semiconductors was discovered , they said that it could be of some academic interest as well, Later on the discovery of transistors and all those things then really became useful.

Why basic research is important?

When we were working on the vacuum tube many years ago, may be 50 years ago, everybody using vacuum tube tried to improve the vacuum tube usage. How hard one has improved,is not compared when we say transistor, semiconductors, integrated circuits. If you look at the discovery in biology it is also the same thing. Without those fundamental researches we will not go anywhere. Therefore the basic research is very very important.

How could we start basic research, what should been done?

Nepal’s population, is comparable to Taiwan, but a little larger. If you look at Taiwan 30 years ago, we also asked the same question. People often say, it is not possible to do basic research and that why should a small country like Taiwan be doing basic research. But basic research is really the part of the cultural activity and is important for the young generations who are coming up, to understand the matter.

Can poor country like Nepal compete with the developed nations?

Although, Nepal is a very small country, I do not believe it would compete in a major way with bigger countries like US or even Japan. On the other hand, if you look at the problems one has been facing in Nepal or in the entire world, there are all important questions arising, which needs to be answered. I believe that smaller countries is great too; but it’s important to focus and pick up the most important areas.

Is it the case of solving the problem of brain drain?

I was saying that there are many scientists who have come back to Taiwan. They would not come back unless they feel that they can compete with the rest of the world. The set up institute and research centre would be really excellent and would also provide a place for people to get together. So Taiwan will become the strength for the centre of excellence. . An Many students who have gone to America have started to come back..

So I do believe that brain circulation is important. We worry about brain drain where e brilliant educated scientists all go out of their countries. But once you set up such centres of excellence, then people starts coming back.

In which sector should we need to focus?

I do think that the countries like Nepal have a role to play. You have to focus. Then set up the international collaboration especially when we look at the problem that we are facing today with thermal global warming trend. In the next few years, I want to see immediate changes, in learning to use the natural resources. We cannot keep on spending so much natural resources, so scientists’ needs to bring in that change.

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