Science ministry expands power over research funding

China’s Ministry of Science and Technology will be expanded and given more powers over the country’s research and innovation drive – a major national priority on a par with defence and foreign policy – in a major restructuring of China’s science administration approved earlier this month by China’s National People’s Congress.

The expanded ministry-led national administration will also coordinate, assess and oversee research funding.

The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the semi-autonomous research funding agency which previously answered to the State Council – roughly equivalent to the cabinet – will now come under the ministry’s remit, signalling a closer alignment of research with the government’s policies and causing some fears in universities that smaller researcher-led projects that do not tie in with major government priorities may not see as much funding in future.

The administration in charge of bringing in foreign research talent from abroad, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, will also be brought under the ministry.

Unveiled this month at the plenary of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, State Councillor Wang Yong said the integration of the various agencies under the ministry umbrella would “boost innovation, optimise the allocation of science and technology resources and promote team-building between high-end science and tech talent”.

Many academics in China appear to have been taken by surprise by the sweeping changes that they say amounts to the biggest reorganisation since the NSFC itself was set up under Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. Many are concerned at what they see as a downgrading of the peer-review scientific criteria for selecting research projects for funding, which was the hallmark of the NSFC.

The NSFC dispensed some CNY30 billion (US$4.7 billion) last year on 120,000 research projects around the country.

“Selection of projects will now be carried out if not by bureaucrats, then overseen by bureaucrats according to their procedures,” said one professor of chemistry who declined to be named. He expressed concern for “the future of any research that does not fit in with the ministry’s broad goals dictated by the [Communist] Party.”

The ministry’s CNY37 billion (US$5.8 billion) budget last year was geared more to applied science and innovation with research expected to be results- and impact-oriented compared to some of the blue-skies research backed by the NSFC, he said.

The government has outlined strategic priorities in fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space and maritime research and climate change.

Addressing academics’ fears

Attempting to allay fears expressed by university research departments, Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang said the ministry would not use its administrative power to “force” scientists to carry out specific research projects.

“Creativity doesn’t thrive under orders. It depends on scientists’ imagination and free thinking,” he was quoted as saying in a report by the official Xinhua news agency on 14 March. “[We] will create a more relaxed environment for scientists – only when they feel free will they be able to think freely,” he said.

Officials said integrating the different types of research funding under the ministry would streamline the pipeline of research with better support for the different stages from fundamental research to industry application.

It would also enable better coordination between China and international research projects through the ministry’s ability to reach out to other countries, although the NSFC also has an international cooperation agency which liaises with the European Union’s massive Horizon 2020 research fund on jointly funded projects, for example.

The restructuring also reflects China’s ambitions in global research collaboration. Cao Jinghua, director of international cooperation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, earlier this year said many major science projects in China “are closely related to human health and social development, but they are so complex that international cooperation is essential for tackling them”.

He added: “China will continue to strengthen cooperation with developed countries.” European countries such as the United Kingdom, Austria, Denmark, France and Italy are actively engaged in Chinese science projects.

However, the current United States administration, previously a key partner in science projects, has not renewed the US-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement, which has been the basis of Sino-US science diplomacy since the 1980s.

Basic research

An expanded ministry will be better equipped to tackle ‘grand challenges’ and big science projects.

Minister Wan Gang said China would create more government laboratories and science projects allowing research to tackle bigger societal issues. “Science and innovation should also serve the people in social security, poverty, environmental protection, public health and other key issues related to livelihoods,” he said.

China will continue to participate in international ‘big science’ programmes initiated by other countries while mapping out its own cooperation plans. In addition, China will encourage overseas experts to lead or participate in national scientific projects, the State Council said in a document released in January.

The stated aim was for China to lead the world in “more key fields in science and make breakthroughs that are significant for global scientific development” by 2035, the document said.

Chinese officials have pointed out that funding for basic research is being stepped up and will therefore not be reduced by the reorganisation under the ministry.

More support will be provided for fundamental research in mathematics and physics, as well as cutting-edge research in basic science involving universe evolution, the origin of life, brain science and cognition, quantum science and deep-ocean science. Major scientific infrastructure will be constructed in fields such as energy, life, earth system and environment, materials, particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy, according to the State Council.

China invested CNY82.3 billion in fundamental research in 2016, up 65% from 2012, according to the ministry’s figures.

China's total spending on research and development is estimated to have hit CNY1.76 trillion (US$278 billion) last year – a year-on-year increase of 14%, China's science minister Wan Gang said last month.