Tips for China to build national science lab: Set goals and let the scientists do their best

Zhang Ningning
Peter Littlewood, a former director of the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States, spoke with Shanghai Daily reporter Zhang Ningning during the Pujiang Innovation Forum.
Zhang Ningning
Tips for China to build national science lab: Set goals and let the scientists do their best
Photo courtesy of Hai Sha’er / SHINE

Peter Littlewood, a former director of the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States, shares his experiences with Chinese reporters on how to build a national science lab.


Peter Littlewood, a former director of the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States, spoke with Shanghai Daily reporter Zhang Ningning and certain other reporters during the Pujiang Innovation Forum (September 22-25) and shared his insights on the role of national laboratories in boosting science and technology innovation and suggestions for the city’s ambition to build a national laboratory.

Argonne is one of 17 national laboratories in the United States, and the oldest. The lab built the world’s first nuclear reactor. After retiring from Argonne, Littlewood works as Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago.

Zhangjiang Lab, co-built by the city government and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, opened on September 26. The lab aims to be a national laboratory and is the city’s latest step in moving towards becoming a global hub of innovation and science.

Q: How does Argonne attract world-class scientists and researchers?

A: By giving them opportunities to change the world.

It’s not an easy job to bring thousands of scientists to work together, so we set a goal for the research teams rather than telling them what to do specifically.

For example, in advanced battery research, we first set up a “five-five-five”goal, which means to increase the performance of the new battery by five times, the price is five times cheaper and can be used for five years. Once the goal is completed, we will set a bigger and wider goal.

The process of how we set it up is to be very consultative with the scientific community. We have studies, reports, meetings, and try to bring everybody together to try and decide on the goal. And sometimes you push the goals a little bit further.

Q: How do you think a national lab can contribute to a country’s science and technology innovation?

A: It is best done with an example. The big synchrotron (a national synchrotron X-ray research facility) that Argonne has is a large x-ray ring that provides x-rays for the use by the science community. There are over 5,000 scientists who visit Argonne to use that facility every year to do their own experiments. They come from small universities, big universities, industries and everywhere else.

Running a large facility supports a very large number of scientific programs, which I think is one of the prime functions of a national lab to support the science community.

China is already building on national laboratory settings. For many scientists, the ability to have a world-class facility to do their research is critical. Facilities such as Shanghai synchrotron, Beijing synchrotron, these facilities make it possible for people to do world-class research in China and that brings people here. The thing that scientists always want to do is be able to do the best possible science, so you need to give them that environment and that is what the labs can do.

Q: Argonne has many great scientific achievements, how does Argonne face new challenges?

A: It’s important to open to new ideas and new programs.

Argonne began with nuclear power, and is now also doing something very different. Argonne still has active research in nuclear power, with hundreds of people working on the next generation reactor.

And it is also investing in quantum computing, neural science and other areas where things are small but will grow.

All organizations have to change continuously. If you don’t change, you will become out of date.

The biggest focus of Argonne has been on batteries and electrical storage. The goal is to produce new technologies to link to what we have now. We are also developing new technologies for solar or even wind.

One thing is important but most people don’t understand that the fastest-growing use of energy is for information technology. The computers we use, the data we store is growing so rapidly that this is becoming a major burden for the planet.

It already accounts for a few percent of the world’s use of energy, at the rate it is growing now, by 2040 it might be 50 percent of the world’s use of energy. We cannot afford this and we need to develop new computing technology to solve that.

Q: What are Argonne’s plans of cooperation in China or Shanghai?

A: There are some things already in operation. For global collaboration between the US and China, there are two major ones on clean energy research that Argonne is involved in.

At another level, we collaborate with Chinese scientists all the time and in many ways. About one-third of the post-doctoral researchers in Argonne are Chinese. There are more Chinese post-docs in Argonne than there are American post-docs. That produces many collaborations all the time, which I think are very important for binding the world together scientifically.

Q: Shanghai aims to build a national lab, what can Shanghai learn from Argonne?

A: I think maybe you can learn technical things from us. But I think you shouldn’t try to construct national labs by looking at a model that comes from another country. It will not fit.

The rules and interaction between industries and the government are very different in China. There are some things that may be easier to do here and some things maybe harder.

One of the important things is that the labs must be open. They need to be supporting a very large environment of academia and of industries, and to bring all of those people together as users and as contributors.

Besides, for a national lab, you have to decide who is the master — is it the federal government, in our case Washington, or the regional government, in your case Shanghai, the science community or industry community. And who are the partners.

Argonne in the last few years has been in transition and it’s moved somewhat away from the federal government to be part of the local business community in Chicago. That is a conscious transition we made in Argonne and a transition you might imagine is somewhat resisted by the federal government.

My sense is that in China there are many tensions which can be exploited. These are positive ones between the needs of the nation, the needs of the city. You need to understand what you are doing and to build structures which are sensitive to all of the stakeholders.

Q: Do you have any suggestion for Shanghai building Zhangjaing as a comprehensive national science center?

A: It is important to have all aspects of science covered.

You cannot have innovation without invention, you cannot do invention without science. I think it’s very interesting and important that China continues to stress the need for basic science.

Listening to Minister Wan Gang’s speech (Wan, Minister of Science and Technology, delivered a keynote speech at the Pujiang Innovation Forum), I was impressed by him continuing to say that we must have better basic science.

He’s of course right. Because this is how you train people, it’s the basics of all these things. You cannot do technology transfer, if you begin without the underlying science.

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