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Research Funding

China reshuffles science governance

Moves may generate conflict between basic and applied research programs

by Hepeng Jia, special to C&EN
April 25, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 18

China significantly expanded its Ministry of Science & Technology (MOST) as part of its government shuffling last month. The change was announced and approved at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, which also expanded the portfolio of the environment minister and passed a constitutional change to remove a two-term limit for the presidency.

The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the country’s leading funder of basic research, is now part of MOST. Previously, NSFC had functioned independent of a ministry.

Additionally, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, which was previously under the Ministry of Human Resources & Social Security, is also now under MOST. The agency certifies foreign experts to work in China and organizes overseas training for Chinese government professionals.

So far, the government has offered no detailed explanation for MOST’s expansion. At a ministerial meeting to welcome the new government reforms on March 24, new science minister Wang Zhigang, who trained as an electronics engineer and has served as Chinese Communist Party secretary to MOST since 2012, said that the reform in the science sector is aimed at strengthening the party’s leadership role on innovation, which the government wants to become the essential driving force for national development.

Fang Hanting, a leading innovation policy researcher and vice president of Science & Technology Daily, which is affiliated with MOST, wrote in the publication that the reform will boost MOST’s role in innovation policy-makingand implementation. Innovation efforts have been distributed among more than 30 government agencies.

Sun Yutao, a professor of science policy at Dalian University of Technology, agreed. He suggested that by placing NSFC under MOST, the reshuffle is likely aimed at increasing commercialization of basic research.

However, Ning Li, a professor of management at Eastern Washington University and a top U.S.-based China science policy expert, questions the efficacy of the policy move. “MOST is a national tasks-oriented bureaucracy, and NSFC is a scientist-dominated funding agency that supports original ideas proposed by individual scientists,” Li says. “A cultural conflict might be inevitable if there is no appropriate coordination measure.”

In 2017, MOST spent 38.3 billion yuan ($6.1 billion) to support research, primarily in large grants to the state key research program for applied science projects. Those grants often reach tens of millions of yuan over five years for one individual project. NSFC spent 28.7 billion yuan ($4.6 billion), mostly in smaller amounts—typical NSFC grants amount to about 600,000 yuan ($95,000) over three to five years. Among Chinese scientists, NSFC has a better reputation than MOST in terms of transparency and fair funding decisions.

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The rivalry between task-oriented and original ideas-oriented research funding and management systems is not new, but now with NSFC placed under MOST, people will be watching to see if basic research retains its current level of support, Li adds.

China’s State Council, the government’s executive branch, further announced on April 7 that the newly-appointed vice premier Liu He, a Harvard-trained economist who was a close advisor to President Xi Jinping, will be in charge of science, including MOST. Another new vice premier, Sun Chunlan, will be in charge of education. This is the first time in decades that the education and science ministers do not report to the same vice premier.

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