“The Chinese people’s boom in buying scientific research instruments has saved many foreign companies!”
The words of the former deputy minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology have exhausted the helplessness of China’s scientific and technological circles. But the consequences of the inability of scientific instruments to be autonomous are only just beginning to emerge.
In 2018, a machine at the NMR Center of Peking University malfunctioned. When the school asked a foreign manufacturer for help, the other party shrugged and said:
First pay 230,000 yuan for labor costs, and then they go to prepare liquid helium.
In other words, if it doesn’t work, the hundreds of thousands will be wasted.
When did the highest university in China suffer from this kind of anger? The center angrily terminated the cooperation between the two parties.
This incident shocked dozens of professors in China at that time. But this struggle is destined to be futile, because almost no domestic manufacturers can produce this kind of thing called nuclear magnetic resonance instrument.
Chinese people go overseas to snatch milk powder and toilet lids. It is well known to passers-by that scientific research instruments are controlled by others, and many people have heard of it for the first time.
But this situation has existed for many years.
As early as 2010, China replaced the United States as the world’s largest manufacturing country. But in the past ten years, China’s dependence on foreign high-end instruments has not decreased, but has increased.
Statistics show that my country imports nearly 100 billion US dollars of equipment every year, second only to petroleum and semiconductors. Among them, 90% of high-end instruments are monopolized by foreign companies.
Taking nuclear magnetic resonance instruments as an example, only a few companies in the world, such as Bruker of Germany, can provide them.
It is this German company with an annual revenue of only 2 billion US dollars, monopolizing more than 80% of the Chinese market, and pinching Peking University to death.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Cryo-electron microscopy is an important tool for studying protein structure. Only FEI, Japan Electronics and Hitachi can produce it in the world. Even a copycat version can’t be made in China.
A slightly lower-end SEM, the domestic share is less than 10%.
Mass spectrometers are used to measure the mass of microscopic particles and currently rely on imports. The high-end LC/MS technology comes entirely from manufacturers such as Agilent and Thermo Fisher in the United States.
Because domestic production is not possible, 60% of China’s annual investment in fixed assets of scientific research of trillions of dollars is used for imported equipment.
It is far more than just the laboratory that is being manipulated.
In hospitals that are related to the health of 1.4 billion people, including CT, MRI, and large X-ray machines, they are almost monopolized by GE, Philips and Siemens (commonly known as GPS).
A few years ago, a reporter from People’s Daily visited hundreds of companies and found that the production lines and R&D centers there were almost reduced to a feast of “foreign equipment”.
Made in China in Western shopping malls, made in Germany and Japan in factories in China, and made in the United States in laboratories in China.
Such a joke, how embarrassing. But what really chills the back of your mind is this: if a small invisible champion abroad fails to supply, it can stop China’s scientific research and paralyze China’s trillion-dollar industry!
Do you think it’s just about the lab? In fact, it is closely related to each of our lives.
“Father of Chinese Optics” Wang Daheng once said: Instruments are tools for understanding the world.
In 1609, Galileo used his self-made telescope to see the craters of the moon for the first time, which started modern astronomy. In the 1960s, the invention of scanning electron microscopes allowed humans to observe the microscopic world to the molecular level.
Over the past 400 years, human beings have developed modern scientific and technological civilization through the continuous improvement of scientific instruments.
Since the 20th century, more than 60% of Nobel Prize winners have discovered things that others have not discovered using their own instruments.
One of the best examples of the improvement of scientific research level by scientific instruments comes from Tsinghua University.
Before 2013, the life sciences of Tsinghua University did not have much global influence. After that, Shi Yigong’s team purchased a batch of cryo-electron microscopes that were not very popular at the time, and built the world’s largest cryo-electron microscope center.
Immediately afterwards, Tsinghua University seemed to be on the hook, frequently publishing articles in the three authoritative academic journals “Cell”, “Nature” and “Science”.
The improvement of the level of science and technology will ultimately benefit thousands of industries.
Mass spectrometers were first used by scientists to determine the mass of atoms and molecules. In the 1960s, NASA used it to detect organic matter in space.
Today, more than 60% of industries ranging from national security to food, medicine, and the environment rely on mass spectrometers for monitoring and detection.
As early as the 1990s, the US Department of Commerce pointed out that instrumentation only accounts for 4% of the total industrial output value, but its impact on the national economy exceeds 60%.
In such an important industry, we have long relied on imports and are therefore subject to others everywhere.
In 2010, BGI purchased 128 gene sequencers from Illumina, a leading company in the global gene sequencing field, and became the world’s largest gene sequencing institution in one fell swoop.
But then, Illumina started raising prices. Huada Gene had no choice but to embark on the road of self-research.
Although Tsinghua has built the world’s largest cryo-electron microscope center, all the equipment is imported from FEI in the United States. In order to cut the price to 30 million yuan per unit, Shi Yigong spent two weeks bargaining with the other party.
In a large hospital monopolized by GPS equipment, a PET-CT scan can cost tens of thousands of yuan at every turn, and the common people are miserable.
But in reality, in many areas of high-end instrumentation, we were not far behind in the beginning.
Electron microscope, referred to as electron microscope, is the human eye for observing the microscopic world.
According to the structure and use, electron microscope is divided into scanning electron microscope, transmission electron microscope and so on. The former looks at the nanoscale world, while the latter looks at atomic-scale images.
As early as the 1950s, my country began to develop electron microscopes, less than 30 years after the birth of the world’s first transmission electron microscope.
In 1958, Huang Lanyou, who returned from studying in Germany, and Wang Daheng from Changchun Institute of Optics and Mechanics jointly developed my country’s first transmission electron microscope.
By the end of the 1970s, the transmission electron microscopes developed in my country had reached the international advanced level. To this end, commemorative stamps were also issued.
We also started developing mass spectrometers for a wider range of uses in the 1950s.
In 1959, the Beijing Analytical Instrument Factory started to produce mass spectrometers with the aid of the former Soviet Union, producing dozens of them in total. In the 1960s, Nanjing Institute of Technology developed a quadrupole mass spectrometer leak detector.
At this time, it was less than ten years since Professor Paul of Germany applied for a patent.
However, what happened next was surprising. China’s instrument industry, which has not stopped for ten years, has collapsed in the marketization wave of reform and opening up.
Many state-owned enterprises with a long history were privatized due to the restructuring of state-owned enterprises. Although private enterprises have a flexible system, they are weak.
The old scientific research system has been broken, and the new system has not yet been established. Just in this window period, ferocious foreign giants came in.
Under the influence that it is better to buy than to make, the country has begun to introduce technology in an all-round way. Many instrument factories were acquired by foreign capital, and the teams were scattered.
At the same time, the Japanese instrument industry, which also started in the 1950s, has given birth to industry giants such as Japanese electronics, Shimadzu, and Hitachi because of its insistence on independent development.
▲Transmission electron microscope produced by Hitachi
The final result is: today, when high-end instruments from the United States, Japan, Germany and other countries are rampant in China, there is no longer a company capable of producing TEM in China.
Although after 2011, the state set up special funds, and private enterprises also began to emerge, but this kind of catch-up came too late.
Scientific instruments are an industry with a long R&D cycle and extremely high technical barriers.
For example, the founder of German Bruck, who humiliated Peking University, was originally a pioneer in the study of nuclear magnetic resonance. Another giant, Varian, was born in the Stanford Industrial Park.
A Chinese private enterprise that has just learned to walk, where have they seen such a scholarly entrepreneur? What’s more, this industry, although important, is too small.
How small is it? Thermo Fisher, the world’s largest scientific instrument company in the United States, had only $6.3 billion in instrument revenue in 2019.
Such revenue, in China’s real estate industry, can only rank outside the 30th.
In this regard, Thermo Fisher has accounted for 1/4 of the total revenue of the top 20 global scientific instrument industry. The second-ranked Shimadzu, Japan, has an annual revenue of only 2.1 billion US dollars.
The technical threshold of the master class and the revenue of the scumbag class are basically unattractive for Chinese companies that have just solved their food and clothing. The ones that can persevere, mostly rely on feelings.
After all, opening a restaurant or building a website could be more profitable than that.
While domestic companies are rushing to engage in real estate and the Internet, the global scientific instrument industry has experienced a drastic change.
Top seed Thermo Fisher has initiated more than 200 mergers and acquisitions since 2006. In 2016, it spent $4.2 billion to acquire FEI, a cryo-electron microscope manufacturer.
Danaher, the “King of M&A”, has acquired more than 600 companies since its listing in 1986, including the famous Leica.
Under one dismantling and one merger, the strength gap between domestic instrument companies and overseas giants has become increasingly disparate.
Up to now, there are more than 1,000 scientific instrument factories in China, most of which have an output value of less than 10 million yuan.
According to the data of the American Chemical Society, in 2018, there are 8 companies in the United States, 7 companies in Europe, 5 companies in Japan, and no Chinese companies in the global scientific instrument industry TOP 20.
In 2009, Peking University conducted a survey and concluded that:
In the past 20 years, the gap between my country’s scientific instruments and developed countries has not narrowed, but has gradually widened.
Fortunately, the country has been aware of this problem, and the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) have set up major special projects to increase investment. Many instrument companies are also on the rise.
In 2006, Beijing Dongxi Analytical Instrument Co., Ltd. independently developed the first mass spectrometer, which sounded the charge of China’s scientific instruments moving towards high-end.
BGI, which was stuck in the neck by Illumina, was also ashamed and brave. Through self-development and acquisition of overseas technologies, it became one of the three companies in the world that can mass-produce clinical-grade gene sequencers.
Shanghai United Imaging also launched China’s first ultra-high-field animal magnetic resonance system, breaking the 30-year monopoly of GPS.
In 2011, when former US President Barack Obama visited the TEM laboratory at Intel, he saw a single atom with FEI’s transmission electron microscope, and said excitedly: “They make me optimistic about the future of the United States.”
Obama’s excitement comes from America’s dominance of global scientific instruments.
The history of mankind in the past 400 years has repeatedly proved to us that whoever masters the most advanced scientific instruments has mastered the initiative in the development of science and technology.
However, over the past four decades, we have lost at the starting line in this critical area.
This kind of pain is especially acute today when the technology industry is struggling to catch up and trying to break the siege of developed countries. The technological war is about to start, but even the guns in our hands are made by our opponents.
The ZTE and Huawei incidents are just the ban on chip sales and supply cuts, which has already made us passive. One day in the future, if the supply of scientific instruments is also cut off, who will hold up the future of China’s science and technology?