In the midst of the Cold War, in April 1974, a delegation from the Max Planck Society, headed by the President at that time, Reimar Lüst, dared to go into unchartered territory. They returned with mutual verbal promises to exchange scientists. Even before the Second World War, many Chinese scientists had studied and done research in Germany. This connection was something that the Max Planck Society wanted to pick up on. The first official visit by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to Germany was led by Prof. Zhou Peiyuan, who had even studied under Albert Einstein.
What was then seen as a risky venture soon developed an astounding dynamic. The partnerships that the Max Planck Society has established with CAS are closer than with any other scientific organisation from a non-European area. In the course of the more than 30 years that the cooperation has lasted, around 2,000 Chinese scientists have spent long stretches of time conducting research at Max Planck institutes - and just as many German scientists have worked in China.
Today, around ten per cent of all foreign junior scientists and visiting scientists at Max Planck Institutes come from China, which is almost twice the figure of 1998. It is a clear testimony to the success of the partnership that around one third of all senior and directorial positions in CAS have been filled with scientists who have trained in Germany.
In the first years of the cooperation, the focus was placed on education and advanced education of scholarship holders. A guest laboratory was established at the CAS Institute of Cell Biology in Shanghai in the 1980s. Here, together with Chinese colleagues, German scientists conduct research and teach Chinese junior scientists.
Max Planck Research Groups – then known as "Independent Junior Research Groups" – were established in 1995 as a model initiative geared towards young Chinese researchers abroad. The objective of this scheme was to provide such researchers with an attractive opportunity to return to their home country. The programme also introduced such important elements as competitive-based selection procedures and independent evaluation: Research Group Leaders were selected on the basis of internationally advertised positions and an evaluation carried out by a Scientific Advisory Board composed of international experts.
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 difference.
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.