How cooperation with China began

How cooperation with China began

The history of an early cooperation

In the midst of the Cold War, a delegation from the Max Planck Society led by then President Reimar Lüst ventured into the unknown - to China - in April 1974. They returned with a mutual verbal promise of scientific exchange between researchers from both countries.

Numerous Chinese researchers had already studied and conducted research in Germany before the Second World War. The intention now was to build on this connection. The first official visit of a delegation from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to Germany was led by Professor Zhou Peiyuan, who had studied with Albert Einstein in Berlin.

What was a gamble from the point of view of the time developed an astonishing dynamic after only a short time. The MPG's relations with CAS are closer than with any other scientific organisation outside Europe. In the more than 45 years of cooperation, thousands of Chinese scientists have conducted research at Max Planck Institutes and numerous German researchers have worked in China.

The first years of cooperation

The beginning of the cooperation was mainly characterised by the education and training of scholarship holders. At the beginning of the 1980s, a guest laboratory was set up at the Institute of Cell Biology at CAS in Shanghai. Scientists from Germany conduct research there together with Chinese colleagues and teach young Chinese researchers.

Today, around ten percent of all foreign early career scientists and visiting scientists at the Max Planck Institutes come from China. Their number has thus more than doubled since 1998. The success of the partnership is also shown by the fact that about one third of all managerial and directorial positions in the CAS are held by researchers who were trained in Germany.

Independent Max Planck Junior Research Groups in China

Independent Max Planck Junior Research Groups set up in 1995 - initially as a model. They were intended to make it attractive for young Chinese researchers living abroad to return to China. The programmes introduced important elements such as competition and independent review: for example, the junior research group leaders were selected on the basis of an international call for applications and the review was carried out by international expert advisory boards. Since 1995, 13 junior research groups have been established at CAS institutes.

The first leader of the Max Planck Research Group established in Shanghai, Professor PEI Gang, was appointed as director of the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences (SIBS), the largest bioscience Center of CAS, after five years. The leader of the second Max Planck Research Group, Dr. HU Gengxi, also went on to have a highly successful career. He is funding his current research activities from the proceeds of several of his own biotech companies of international renown. Both researchers decided against promising career opportunities in the USA in favour of heading up a Max Planck Research Group at home. In an interview, Pei Gang summarises his thoughts at the time: "Naturally, I had always wanted to return to China, because I am Chinese and China is my home. But I only wanted to return if I could find a position where I could make a difference. When I saw the advert in "Science" I could hardly believe my eyes. Here was the very position that enabled me to do both these things: to return home and to make a eyes. Here was a position advertised that allowed me to do both: return and make a difference."

2004 to 2020: CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology (PICB).

Founded in 2004, the Partner Institute was at the time a pilot project for an institutional commitment of the Max Planck Society in China. The contractual relationship between the MPG and the institute, which legally and administratively belongs to CAS, ended in December 2020. At the scientifically attractive location of Shanghai, the former partner institute is embedded in the first-class infrastructure of the Shanghai Institute of Nutrition and Health. Participation in the National Infrastructure for Biomedical Big Data, which is currently being established in China and in which the Institute is already actively involved, offers a promising perspective for the future.

Bridgeheads in China

A few years later, in order to intensify the cooperation and bring about enduring changes to the Chinese research system, the Max Planck Society and CAS decided to establish Partner Groups. These Groups work in areas such as cosmology, material and plant research, chemistry and mathematics.

In time for the 30th anniversary of the partnership, the Max Planck Society and CAS succeeded in improving their cooperation further: in 2005, they founded the Partner Institute for Computational Biology (PICB) in Shanghai. Despite competing for the best minds and best research results worldwide, both organisations continue to place great value on setting joint goals – regardless of the borders between countries and continents.

Go to Editor View