Dr. Chien-Jen Chen

Chen Chien-Jen: The Tang Prize is an international award

  • Dr. Chien-Jen Chen
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“Though so far all the winners (of the Tang Prize) are foreigners, those of us working in the academia have been truly inspired and people are more willing to invest in the R&D of biotechnologies. So besides drawing the world’s attention, more importantly, the Tang Prize has promoted the development of Taiwan’s biomedical industry. It has been a tremendous help. Thank you, Tang Prize.”

Chen Chien-Jen, a caring man whom President Tsai nicknamed “Big Brother Jen,” left his post as vice president of Taiwan in 2020 and returned to Academia Sinica to be a distinguished research fellow. His other former positions include deputy minister and minister of the National Science Council, minister of health, and vice president of Academia Sinica. He is also a leading expert on arsenic poisoning and blackfoot disease. The standard he set for arsenic in drinking water benefited the entire world. His research on hepatitis B and liver cancer became a global clinical guideline. His contribution to the improvement of global public health is nothing short of significant.


What many people may not know is that the brilliant Dr. Chen was also the chair of the selection committee for the first Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science. Immunologists James Allison and Tasuku Honjo were the inaugural winners in 2014. Four years later, they claimed the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and after that, the media started to describe the Tang Prize as a “signpost on the way to the Nobel Prize.” For Dr. Chen, who was involved in the prizes’ establishment, this reputation is something he can’t be more proud of.


The Tang Prize is an international award,” Dr. Chen opined. Because of the amount of prize and research money (NT$50 million, approx. US$1.40 million) it offers, it shouldn’t just be a national or regional prize. Instead, it should have a global reach. When the selection committee was being formed, Dr. Chen managed to recruit specialists in the fields of basic research, clinical therapeutics, and public health, as well as a few Nobel winners, thanks to Academia Sinica’s extensive network and considerable resources, plus Dr. Lee Yuan-Tseh’s stature as a Nobel laureate. When all the members were appointed, they were divided into small groups, carrying out careful assessment of nominees’ work, then compiling reports. After thorough exchanges of views, the committee was able to select the worthiest winners.


To award research results that have practical applications is the most distinctive feature of the Tang Prize. The emphasis on the practical value of research not only stimulated the growth of Taiwan’s biotech companies, making them the next blue-chip stocks after those in the semiconductor and precision machinery industries, but it also had something to do with a turning point in Dr. Chen’s academic career, the moment when he pondered about how to “connect with the world.”


Becoming a professor at National Taiwan University’s College of Medicine when he was only 35, Dr. Chen cannot help but get a bit arrogant. At that time, he was also a joint appointment research fellow at Academia Sinica. Dr. Wu Cheng-Wen, the then head of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences, created a precedent by hiring 9 foreign scholars to evaluate the performance of the institute’s researchers. There were praises in the report Dr. Chen got, and there was a linking word of contrast: however.   


The comments read like this: “If Chen Chien-Jen wants to become an international scholar, he needs to know there is still a long way ahead. Now he is doing quite well in Taiwan. However, he must think globally and not be complacent about what he has achieved so far.”


Dr. Chen admitted that the comments really irked him, but the advice was sensible. Because of this incident, he started to think about how his research can help the world. Later on, he visited several countries, including China, Bangladesh, India, and those in South America, to help people suffering from arsenicosis.


“Gradually, your horizons were expanded, and you came to understand that being a good public health professional, you shouldn’t focus only on your own country. Your goal should be to help the world, the entire humanity,” said Dr. Chen. Therefore, he encourages young people to “never confine themselves to a small place. To be ambitious, they need to develop a global vision.”  


One of the influential figures Dr. Chen mentioned in the farewell media tea party before he left office was Dr. Gro Brundtland, the first Tang Prize winner in Sustainable Development and known to many as the godmother of sustainable development.


In 2003, Dr. Brundtlad was the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO). Undeterred by political pressure from the international community, she sent specialists to Taiwan to help tackle the SARS outbreak. Finally, the epidemic was contained, and Dr. Chen, who was named the health minister at that critical juncture, was deeply impressed. “Had it not been for a visionary and brave director-general like her, the WHO would not have done something that had positive impact on global health like this,” he concluded. Fair, professional, and demonstrating excellent communication and coordination skills, Dr. Brundtland gave Dr. Chen a chance to see how a true world leader should conduct herself.   


Not everyone can go from being a good scholar to being a government official like Dr. Chen. But scientists’ research shouldn’t be an asset only to their own countries. It should be to the world. So what makes a good scientist? Dr. Chen always says: “Scientists have names for their legs. One is called wisdom. The other compassion.” Apart from searching for answers to unsolved medical mysteries, they also have to think about how their discoveries can be useful to mankind. Judging by these two requirements, he believes that Tang Prize laureates have all made great contributions to the improvement of our wellbeing.


The same can be said about the design of the Tang Prize logo. The Chinese character “tang” was handpicked from the calligraphy of the Song Dynasty artist Mi Fu, so that both “tang” and “jiang” (prize) can look like two figures marching forward with wisdom and compassion, concerned about the problems facing humanity in the 21st century but working hard to make the world a better place.  

By Daisy Lee
Photo by Mark Huang
English translation by Wei-hsin Lin

Photo caption:
President of the Tang Prize Selection Committee Lee Yuan-Tseh (second right), Chair of the Selection Committee for Biopharmaceutical Science Chen Chien-Jen (second left), Executive Secretary of the Selection Committee for Biopharmaceutical Science Chang Wen-Chang (first left), and board member of the Tang Prize Foundation Yen Yun announce winners of the inaugural Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science at a press conference in 2014.