Liming Wang

Bringing Science to a Broader Community

Liming Wang is a former consultant from BCG’s Shanghai office. In addition to being a scientist and PhD supervisor, Wang is a popular science writer, an emerging sci-fi novelist, and a caring father.

What led to your interest in popular science? What is the difference between popular science and scientific research?

I have enjoyed writing since I was a young child, but at that age, it was all diaries and reflections on day-to-day activities. After I became a professor at Zhejiang University, people began to approach me with requests for articles about scientific topics. I then discovered I had a talent for writing, and quite a few people enjoyed reading my work. I started to combine my childhood hobby with my career by writing more. That’s how I began publishing popular science articles. My first works were all on topics closely related to my own research, such as metabolic disorders and digestive science. I gradually broadened my scope to things I was interested in, or to where substantial public interest existed, including evolution, wisdom, and the history of gene editing. By 2020, I had been writing continuously for six years, and I had published six or seven books that received positive reviews and became best sellers.

Of course, scientific research and science literature are very different, but there are ways in which they complement each other. My extensive experience in lab work has given me a keen sense for where new frontiers lie. It may sound lofty, but it’s really a matter of having some idea about where the most exciting progress is being made and which areas of research are worth keeping an eye on. This knowledge is obviously very valuable when it comes to writing science stories.

Perhaps the greatest difference between research and popular science is that the former is an act of interaction between humans and the observed world. Science writing, on the other hand, is about interactions between people. It's not easy to quickly switch between these two states of mind; I am still acclimating.

You established the “Fundamental Prize” with fellow professors to encourage more people to popularize science and medical knowledge. What did you hope to achieve by creating this award?

The propagation of scientific knowledge makes me happy, and it's something I have a talent for. But its value goes far beyond my own passion. In our current age, science and technology have an unprecedented power to drive human progress, influence societal change, and even reshape values. However, I have noticed that society increasingly doesn’t follow what’s happening at the cutting edge of science. This, of course, leads to a chasm between the general public and the scientific community.

Here is where the real value in popular science lies. I hope that more people involved in cutting-edge research can share with the general public the most inspiring things happening in science. Doing so will build excitement and provoke a conversation between scientists and nonscientists alike on what scientific research should really look like and the kind of future we hope to create.

I have always hoped to contribute in some way to encourage others to devote themselves to this work. With the endorsement of my teachers Mr. Rao Yi and Mr. Han Qide, we began to put together the Cornerstone award. We hope the award can encourage more people to get involved in this cause and make everyone involved feel honored and supported.

After returning to China in 2013, you chose to work at BCG before returning to academia. What impact did your time at BCG have on your professional development? What are the best BCG memories you’d like to share?

I’m 37 now, and I have spent much of the past few decades in academia studying, conducting research, and teaching. My year at BCG was the only time I truly left academia and dipped my toes in “the real world.” Because of my background in biomedical science, at BCG I was involved mainly in health care projects. The interaction with key stakeholders in the industry enabled me to gain access to people and ideas. This granted me a bird’s eye view of my own industry.

This perspective was crucial to my later research and writing. It wasn’t just the knowledge I gained—but also the real-world working experience—that was so important. Conceptually, I know that the meaning of research at academic institutions is not just to satisfy our personal curiosity about the natural world; we should also contribute in some way to the betterment of humanity. But that’s a little abstract. Had I stayed within the confines of the university, I would have most likely never understood the meaning of human well-being. However, my time at BCG really taught me about society’s urgent need for health information and the development of new lifesaving drugs. I learned more about the yawning gulf between people's ability to pay for care and the cost of R&D. I realized how imbalanced medical resource availability really is.

In my career, whether I was involved in scientific research or popular science and popularizing scientific knowledge, these issues remained in my head like a background music, reminding me who—and what—I should really work for. I believe this is the greatest impact my time at BCG has had on me.

Could you give a biologist’s analysis of the current spread of the coronavirus and a projection of the future? What changes do you envisage to the ways in which we live?

That’s a rather somber subject. Not long after the initial outbreak of COVID-19, I was already writing articles for multiple platforms, emphasizing it was unlikely that the virus would disappear within the short term, as SARS had done before, and that it would probably be with us for the long haul. At the time the numbers of infected were already substantial, and the mode of transmission was hard to detect (given that many people show mild symptoms or do not present any symptoms at all), which all but precluded the possibility of containing and stamping out the virus within the short term. The lack of a coordinated response between different countries to the virus also increased the likelihood of tragic failure.

Looking back now, my conjecture unfortunately proved correct. This is of course a tragedy, but the first steps to resolving an issue are seeing things clearly and knowing our limits. In this case, the precondition to action is recognizing and accepting that we will have to live with COVID-19 for the long term. Social governance policies need to strike a balance between safety and prosperity; many social control measures, such as wearing masks, scanning QR health codes, social distancing, and reducing social gatherings, will all be in place for a while.

In view of these factors, and together with the deterioration in international exchange and cooperation, the pandemic is likely to exert a sustained and far-reaching impact on humanity. It is very dangerous to hope that the virus will soon dissipate or that we will return to life as it was before COVID-19. The question now is the kind of post-COVID world we want to bring about. Which industries or professions might see their last sunset? What living habits might be changed permanently? Which of our long-held views might be reshaped? How do individuals and organization maintain boundaries? How do we find new opportunities amid a backdrop of uncertainty? These are issues that we all need to grapple with.