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Editorial : The barrier to China becoming a space power

【明報專訊】THANKS to a collaboration among scientists from a number of countries, the first ever image of a black hole has been released, signifying a major breakthrough in astronomical observation. Scientific researchers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait have contributed to this study in which the veil of mystery on black holes has been lifted. Shanghai and Taipei are among the seven cities around the world in which the result of the observation was relayed simultaneously. Astronomy is a typical fundamental science. Its contribution to economic productivity and construction is not obvious, but it reflects a country's level of scientific research and soft power. Over the last decade, China has been playing catch-up in fundamental sciences, such as astronomy and physics, and its effort has begun to bear fruit. However, if China is to keep pace with top scientific research institutions in Europe and the US, it will have to devote more human and physical resources and promote transnational collaboration actively in scientific research projects.

For many people, astronomy is rather "impractical" as a field of scientific research. While it requires huge investment, it does not have much practical value. However, one must not ignore the fact that the level of development a country has achieved in astronomical science enhances its soft power. The international space collaboration project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US is in itself a very important foreign policy tool that projects the soft power and positive image of the US around the world.

In recent years, mainland astronomers have published many important research findings in authoritative science journals such as Nature. This shows that China's overall level of astronomical observation has been improving gradually. However, astronomy is also developing rapidly at international level. Many international large-scale astronomical observation and measurement projects, such as the recent research on black holes, are still dominated by Europe and the US. Chen Jiansheng, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a mainland astronomist, pointed out a decade ago that it was not easy for astronomy in China to catch up with international levels. It was not only about how many resources to put in, but also about the state of international collaboration. Top research projects concerning fundamental sciences nowadays often require collaboration among a number of countries because of the immensity of the projects and the huge amount of resources required. However, in international collaborative projects dominated by Europe and the US, it is difficult for China to assume a core position. It is also rare for international scientific research institutions to take part directly in large-scale astronomical observation projects dominated by China. Naturally, it is rather hard for China to compete with Europe and the US relying only on its national power as a developing country.

Over the past decade, China has put in much effort to internationalise the development of its research on fundamental sciences by seeking to work more with other countries. One example is the East Asia VLBI Network, a collaboration among China, Japan and South Korea. However, there has not been any fundamental change to the difficult situation concerning the state of global collaboration mentioned by Chen back then. In recent years, to put itself on a par with Europe and the US, China has considered spending hundreds of billions of yuan to build its own large hadron collider. There have been disputes concerning its cost-effectiveness. What it reflects is exactly such a problem. While the pursuit of grandeur and unrealistic achievements has no place in the development of basic scientific research, such development does require an additional input of human and physical resources. If China wants to become an advanced technological power, its strategy must be well-measured.

明報社評2019.04.11:國際攜手揭黑洞面紗 中國「觀天」有喜亦有憂

多國科學家攜手合作,公開歷來首張黑洞照片,標誌天文學觀測一次重要突破。今次研究揭開黑洞神秘面紗,兩岸科研人員均有出力,全球7個城市同步發布觀察成果,上海和台北榜上有名。天文學是典型的基礎科學,對經濟生產建設貢獻並不明顯,然而卻反映了一個地方的科研水平以至軟實力。過去10多年,中國在天文、物理等基礎科學領域急起直追,至今漸見成績,然而要與歐美頂尖科研機構並駕齊驅,仍需投入更多人力物力、積極推動跨國科研項目合作。

不少人眼中,天文學是相當「離地」的科學研究,投資耗費巨大,實用價值不高,然而天文科學水平對於提升一國的軟實力,作用不容忽視。美國太空總署的國際太空合作計劃,本身就是很重要的外交政策工具,有利向全球投射美國軟實力和正面形象。

近年內地天文學家不時在《自然》等權威雜誌發表重要科學成果,反映中國天文學整體水平逐步提升,可是國際天文學發展同樣一日千里,很多國際大型天文觀測項目,諸如目下的黑洞研究,實際仍由歐美主導。10年前,中科院院士、內地天文學家陳建生指出,中國天文學要真正追上國際水平並不容易,這不僅是資源投入問題,還是國際合作格局問題——當今最尖端的基礎科研項目,其規模之大投入之高,往往需要多國合作,問題是中國在歐美主導的國際合作項目中,很難躋身核心位置,國際科研機構直接參加中國主導的大型天文觀測項目也甚少,結果中國要以一個發展中國家的國力,去和歐美競爭,自然甚為吃力。

過去10年,中國基礎科研發展一直致力走國際化道路,爭取多與其他國家合作,中日韓「東亞望遠鏡觀察網絡」即屬一例,然而當年陳建生所提的國際合作格局問題,至今並未有根本改變。近年中國提出耗費千億元,興建自家的大型強子對撞機,盼與歐美分庭抗禮,引發成本代價爭議,折射的正是這一問題。發展基礎科研,不能好大喜功,惟亦必須增加人力物力投入,中國要爭取成為先進科技強國,需要好好拿揑分寸。

■Glossary

play catch-up : to make an effort to keep up with or equal an opponent, competitor, or rival when in a losing position or having fallen behind

project : to display or present

immensity : the large size of sth

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