This year’s list of newly selected foreign academics at the Chinese Academy of Engineering would have gone largely unnoticed, as in previous years, had it not been for Bill Gates, who may find himself slightly out of sync with others on a list dominated by renowned professors and Nobel laureates.
Chinese netizens have joked that Gates – the world’s richest man – has probably boosted the per-capita assets of all CAE academics 100-fold.
Others question how a university dropout without even an undergraduate degree qualifies academically for such a post. And they wonder if more businessmen and CEOs will enter the elite research and development body. Software engineering is not strictly considered a subject of hard science in China.
Yet Chinese state media have rushed to endorse the selection of Gates, revealing details of his longstanding partnership with China in nuclear energy, as chairman of TerraPower – rather than him being the founder of Microsoft – as well as its novel concept of traveling wave reactors.
TerraPower is an energy firm based in Washington State that was founded in 2006. It has spearheaded a nuclear fission reactor that can convert fertile material into usable fuel through nuclear transmutation while burning the fissile material using depleted uranium and spent fuel removed from conventional light-water reactors.
Such reactors produce fewer or theoretically no nuclear waste, and its virtue is more evident in a world increasingly jittery about nuclear disasters and improper waste disposal.
Gates had been a frequent visitor to China since 2009, making a pitch for fourth generation nuclear technology, China Business News revealed.
The last time Gates was in China was in early November, when his packed itinerary included meetings with state leaders including Premier Li Keqiang, plus a tour of a lab at the China National Nuclear Corp.
At a meeting in Zhongnanhai, Li congratulated Gates on the signing of an MoU with the state-owned CNNC for a joint venture to develop and build a commercial traveling wave reactor in 20 years’ time.
It’s believed that like many Sino-Western joint R&D efforts, Gates’ TerraPower will contribute technology while the CNNC and China Shenhua Energy, another partner, take care of funding and hardware construction.
In such a context, inviting Gates to sit on the CAE’s foreign expert panel is more like a goodwill gesture from Beijing, rather than a recognition of his knowledge about nuclear energy or engineering.
A Beijing representative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reportedly said that charitable work in China over the years had obviously “complemented” the nuclear cooperation and other initiatives that Gates did there.
Party mouthpiece the Global Times also stressed on Tuesday that the CAE’s selection process could not be manipulated. Shortlisted candidates were chosen via a secret ballot and had to get a two-thirds majority of the vote to make to the list of foreign academics.
The paper said members of the selection committee and all voters were never swayed by commercial interests even though some candidates may have substantial business influence, but they had not been told who to vote for.