An Academic Award of International Prestige, the Tang Prize Celebrates Its 10th Anniversary

  • 世界學術大講堂獎今年正式邁向十周年,至今共誕生了來自全球六大洲、11個國家的唐獎得主
  • 潤泰集團總裁尹衍樑創辦堂獎,畢生投入教育事業,提攜殷殷學子
  • 五屆唐獎得主名單甫於2022年六月正式揭曉,成立十年至今,唐獎深獲國際專業人士及各大組織認可。
  • 唐獎得主赴世界各重要學術場合進行唐獎講座,是將台灣介紹給國際的最佳途徑之一
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Chinese original by Clare Liu (Tang Prize Foundation), first published in Leaders of the East, No.14, in July, 2022

English translation by Wei-hsin Lin (Tang Prize Foundation)

Most people know the Nobel Prize founded in Sweden, but have you heard of an international academic award originating in Taiwan? The name is the “Tang Prize.” Established by President of Runtex Group Taiwan Dr. Samuel Yin and awarded biennially, the Tang Prize so far has winners from six continents and is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2022. 


During the past decade, as a result of the collective effort of its founder, board of directors, international selection committees and all staff members, the Tang Prize has been awarded to 33 laureates, including  three nonprofit organizations, in five two-year award rounds. They hail from 11 countries located in 6 continents, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Norway, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Bangladesh, Colombia, and Lebanon. The latest recipients were unveiled in four press conferences held from June 18 to 21 this year. They are: Professor Jeffrey Sachs for Sustainable Development; Drs. Katalin Kariko, Drew Weissman, and Pieter Cullis, three scientists who pioneered the development of mRNA SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, for Biopharmaceutical Science; Professor Jessica Rawson for Sinology; and Professor Cheryl Saunders for Rule of Law. Step by step and through persistent endeavors, the Tang Prize has been able to choose as its laureates people with great influence and outstanding contributions to the world. Within ten years since its birth, the Tang Prize has grown to be a major academic award recognized by experts, scholars, and institutions around the globe.


How it started

To trace the inception of the Tang Prize, we have to talk about Dr. Samuel Yin’s belief that changing the world begins with education. With the advent of globalization, mankind has been able to enjoy the convenience brought forth by the advancement of human civilization and science. Yet a multitude of challenges, such as climate change, the emergence of new infectious diseases, wealth gap, and moral degradation, have surfaced along the way. Against this backdrop, Dr. Yin drew on his experience of investing efforts in education for more than two decades and established the Tang Prize in December 2012. It consists of four award categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law, aiming at responding to the unique problems humanity faces in the 21st century. Every other year, four independent and professional selection committees, made up of many distinguished international experts and scholars, including Nobel laureates, choose from a pool of nominees who have influenced and made substantive contributions to the world, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or gender. A cash prize of NT$50 million (approx. US$1.7 million) is allocated to each category, including NT$10 million (approx. US$ 0.35 million) as a research grant to the laureate to support relevant educational projects. It is hoped that more people with professional knowledge and skills will be motivated to address mankind’s most urgent needs in this century, and to become leading forces behind the development of human society through their outstanding research and active civic engagement.


Dr. Yin’s lifelong dream

It was, however, a daunting task to create an academic prize of international standing. Dr. Yin reflected: “From picking a name, forming a board of directors, collaborating with Academia Sinica, soliciting support worldwide, promoting the prize globally, to organizing and hosting world-class events and so forth, everything was laden with difficulties but also loaded with importance, because these laureates are a shining beacon to the world. They have fostered the further development of these (four) fields.” It has been Dr. Yin’s lifelong dream to establish the Tang Prize to, in his own words, “signify Asia’s significance in relation to the rest of the world.” In 1989, Dr. Yin set up the Kwang Hua Educational Foundation and Kwang Hua scholarship fund when he was not even 40 years old and his business empire was not as huge as it is today. At that time, China’s economy just started to grow, foreign investment hadn’t begun to flow into its market, and many universities there were seriously in lack of resources. Under these circumstances, the Gwang Hua scholarship, having been awarded to more than 160,000 students from schools such as Peking and Tsinghua Universities, was able to help many of its recipients complete their studies and make important contributions to society. Dr. Yin subsequently founded the Guanghua Engineering Science and Technology Award, the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, the Antai College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Guanghua Law School at Zhejiang University, and many more. Furthermore, he donated research funds and medical equipment to several universities and institutes in Taiwan, including National Taiwan University, National Chengchi University, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, National Changhua University of Education, Academia Sicina, National Health Research Institutes, and Taipei Veterans General Hospital, etc. His commitment to promoting education and supporting students has lasted for 33 years and has enabled him to reach his goals one step at a time.   


Independent and professional selection committees

Besides the substantial capital provided by Dr. Yin, the Tang Prize Foundation also benefited from collaborating with Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s highest research body, shortly after it was established. Through its academic standing, global network and international connections, Academia Sinica assisted the Foundation greatly with the nomination and selection of laureates for the first and second award cycles when Nobel laureate and Academician of Academia Sinica Dr. Yuang-Tseh Lee was the president of the Tang Prize Selection Committee. Beginning with the third cycle, this duty was assigned to four independent selection committees, formed in partial cooperation with the Academia Sinica, consisting of many world-renowned experts and Nobel laureates, and presided by Dr. Shu Chien, a member of Academia Sinica and all three US Academies—National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  


Invitations for nominations are sent to eligible individuals and institutions in May of the year prior to the award year. These nominators include chancellors of the top ten schools in the world, outstanding alumni and alumnae of the world’s best universities, academicians of highly-regarded academies, and members of influential organizations. They have until the end of September of that year to recommend a candidate. The ensuing period till May of the award year is when the selection committees carry out intensive studies and discussions of materials about the nominees. Apart from examining the originality and practical applications of the candidates’ research, the committees also experiment with different combinations of candidates as a group of winners. The job of the selection committees, as Chair of the Selection Committee for Biopharmaceutical Sciences Dr. Wen-Chang Chang described, is to “pay attention to every single profile, especially that of a potential winner and the research that led to his or her nomination. That’s why our preliminary study is so important.”


The Foundation’s role as an organizer

Just like the Nobel Foundation, the Tang Prize also has a foundation in charge of everything from administration to promotion. Pointing to the fact the Tang Prize positioned itself as an international award from the outset, Dr. Jenn-Chuan Chern, CEO of the Tang Prize Foundation, shared the story of him leading a team and making a pilgrimage to the headquarters of other long-established, international awards, such as the Nobel Foundation, the Japan Prize Foundation, the Inamori Foundation, the Wolf Foundation, and the Shaw Prize Foundation, to learn about their valuable experience. The result was that within less than two years, he and his colleagues were able to gradually accomplish a list of foundational tasks, from deciding events venues, allocating manpower, devising systems, drawing up budgets, managing expenditure, designing an international website, to finally staging the first award ceremony successfully. The reputation of the Tang Prize was thus firmly established.   


When it comes to the challenges facing a young prize, Dr. Chern remembers vividly how much effort was put into contacting the inaugural laureates after they were announced in 2014. Take recipient of the first Tang Prize in Sustainable Development Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland as an example. She served three terms as Norway’s prime minister and chaired the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development. It is fair to say that ordinary people would be hard pushed to get in touch with her. Therefore, the Foundation had to rely on Dr. Yuang-Tseh Lee’s personal connection with a key figure in Norway’s science and technology industry who is also a good friend of Dr. Brundtland’s to eventually reach her. Dr. Chern then flew to Norway to give her a detail account of the origin of the Tang Prize and its rigorous election process and to ensure her that recipients in its four categories were all the world’s greatest talents, convincing her to accept the prize in the end. Dr. Brundtland prepared for her trip to Taiwan very carefully. Moreover, she attended all the lectures given by her fellow laureates and stayed until the end. She later told Dr. Chern: “Tang Prize laureates are all the cream of the crop!” From then on, she started to fall in love with Taiwan.    


A fruitful ten years

Having headed the Foundation for ten years, Dr. Chern reasoned that to establish an international award, specific conditions and environments are the essential prerequisites. Some of them have been mentioned in this article, such as a visionary and philanthropic entrepreneur, an independent, professional and objective selection committee made of prominent experts, and a foundation full of innovative people capable of executing plans efficiently. What’s more, there have to be certain corresponding socioeconomic, technological, and democratic elements. In this regard, Taiwan has a highly developed society that provides a favorable environment for an international award to flourish. In addition, its government bodies including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Taipei City Government always go out of their ways to assist the Foundation in inviting laureates to visit Taiwan and promoting the Tang Prize on the global stage, for which Dr. Chern is deeply grateful.


During the past ten years, the Tang Prize has been presented to some of the world’s most remarkable people in four award ceremonies. It is worth pointing out that Drs. James Allison and Tasuku Honjo, and Drs. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier went on to claim the Nobel Prize four years after receiving the 2014 and 2016 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science respectively. Furthermore, the Tang Prize have thus far been given to eight women who account for 27% of the laureates, significantly exceeding the 6% achieved by the Nobel Prize. In addition, it is one of the first international awards to designate part of its cash prize as a research grant ((NT$10 million; approx. US$ 0.35 million), aimed to support laureates in imparting their knowledge to the next generation so as to nurture them intellectually. Up to this point, 25 research projects have been set up and all of them have received international recognition.      


Its contributions to the world

For Dr. Chern, “to set up the Tang Prize is a way for ethnic Chinese people to give back to the world. It also helped put Taiwan on the map.” In the past decade, the Foundation has arranged for many of its laureates to attend important conferences worldwide to give lectures, and has invited some of its esteemed selection committee members, international academic heavyweights and Nobel laureates to travel to Taiwan and exchange views and ideas with local scholars and the public. Such activities not only generated more research incentives in relevant fields but were also the best avenues through which Taiwan can be introduced to the international community. 


The past few years saw the coronavirus ravaging the world, resulting in a staggering and tragic number of deaths. Fortunately, drugs such as Actemra and an anti-interleukin-1biologic called Anakinra, the former developed by Dr. Tadamitsu Kishimoto and the later by Dr. Charles Dinarello, both the 2020 Tang Prize laureates in Biopharmaceutical Science, have been approved by America’s Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to treat COVID-19. A CRISPR-based Sars-Cov-2 rapid test kit developed in the lab of Dr. Feng Zhang, recipient of the 2016 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, has also been given the green light by the US FDA and EMA two years ago for general use.


The experience of interacting with students in Taiwan when he was on the island for the Tang Prize Week events left Dr. Feng Zhang with a strong impression. “The Tang Prize is trying to get more people to pay attention to science and participate in scientific research. I think in the long run, these efforts will bear fruit, because young students are encouraged to get involved in science and to become a scientist. In turn, they would make new discoveries that will have positive impact on the world,” he opined. Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland also praised the Tang Prize’s contributions, noting that just as how the Nobel Peace Prize has inspired the world, the Tang Prize, with its emphasis on some of today’s most pressing issues, such as global cooperation and sustainable development, would also be a source of inspiration for many pioneers of our time.


Museums in the planning

Different from many international awards that are limited in scope and tend to focus more on technology and basic research, the Tang Prize aims to take on challenges facing the 21st century, stressing the importance of science, the humanities, and social sciences. Because of this different approach, three of its four categories—Sustainable Development, Sinology, and Rule of Law—have become the world’s prestigious awards in their related fields. Looking ahead to the next ten years, Dr. Chern said with great earnestness that the Foundation had to keep performing its duties as prudently and circumspectly as always. While he hopes the Tang Prize continues to award people who can lead the world in advancing human civilization, he also expects it to become a platform of knowledge that connects Asia with the rest of the world. Moreover, he revealed that plans were being formulated to create a digital museum and to build a Tang Prize Museum in order to preserve the literature, videos, and precious documents related to the laureates and their contributions, and to put them on public display in the future. The aim is to educate more young people and encourage them to set goals for themselves and work hard to make a difference to the world and to mankind.