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Are China's policymakers finally pivoting to basic research?

- Yuwei Zhong

A semi-conductor factory in Zhengzhou, Source: Wikimedia Commons

China’s science and technology (S&T) strategy, historically characterised by a government-led model, has brought both successes and challenges to business and academia. While China’s publication in Science Citation Index (SCI) has increased more than fivefold since 2003 and now occupies first-place globally, competition with the US in the tech-economy has resulted in China lagging behind in several ‘stuck-neck technologies,’ sectors such as semi-conductors and bio-medicine which have felt the effects of US export controls. Strengthening basic research capabilities is therefore an essential and necessary task in light of the U.S.-China tech war and the intensifying global rivalry.

Leaders have made it clear that the current Chinese administration is attempting to make improvements in ‘basic research’ the basis for its S&T strategy. This term is a near-synonym of fundamental research, which refers to research that aims to understand nature and its laws rather than practical use. As such, the conclusions drawn from basic research are mostly theoretical, and can only be transformed into real benefits through applied research. Basic research provides scientific capital, and is therefore both a catalyst and a prerequesite for any scientific breakthrough.

In his address to the 2020 Symposium of Scientists, President Xi outlined two fundamental goals: promoting open discussion and free scientific exploration to advance China's fundamental disciplines, which were patently below the advanced international level, and enhancing S&T education and training for young people to develop the future workforce in China’s S&T sectors. Premier Li, the leader of the National Science and Technology Leading Group, made a similar appeal for better care for individuals engaged in basic research, and encouraged them to explore more findings with a tenacious spirit.

The current administration’s vision for S&T policy planning is also apparent in its two five-year plans, as well as a regulatory document issued by the State Council in 2018 entitled “Several Opinions of the State Council on Comprehensively Strengthening Basic Research”. Chapter 8: Continuously Strengthening Basic Research is devoted to regulating and furthering the advancement of basic science in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). This plan emphasises that the Chinese government intends to support cutting-edge, goal-oriented research, and includes a list of nine research topics for the deployment of significant national strategic tasks, as well as 13 significant strategic scientific concerns. Besides this, the document deploys a talent-first and people-oriented development strategy to assist a number of elite research institutes and universities in creating world-class scientific research teams.

Following this, the State Council released a systematic plan for constructing a S&T policy system to comprehensively strengthen basic research for the first time in 2018. This plan included measures such as developing high-level research bases, improving internationalisation, and using resource-sharing systems and reasonable evaluation mechanisms. An emphasis on the marriage of fundamental research and national strategy was a constant in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), released in March 2021. Notably, rather than presenting a high rate of academic publication as an indication of effective scientific research, an important adjustment in the document is the encouragement of industry collaboration in line with prior efforts to “transform basic research into science with real-world applications.” A typical piece of evidence offered in support of this is that in December 2019, the Human Resource Ministry established guidelines permitting researchers to take paid sabbaticals of up to six years to join industry or found their own start-ups. Academics’ output during these periods is guaranteed consideration in evaluations and promotions within their institutions.

Figure 1: China’s S&T investment structure (2013-2020), Source: National Bureau of Statistics, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Finance

In terms of funding, China has also seen a steady increase of spending on basic research, rising from 55.5 billion RMB in 2013 to 146.7 billion RMB in 2020 (see Fig. 1). While the comparison still appears to show twice the amount of investment in applied science as in basic science, the net funding for basic science has almost tripled over the last decade.

Nonetheless, this unparalleled level of investment has not dispelled concerns surrounding scientists’ freedom of research among some academics. Indeed, some scholars question whether the government can properly balance “independent decision-making and free exploration of scientists with the government-led, national goal-oriented strategy.” Others are still unsatisfied with the inadequacy of funding in international comparisons: although the central government has promised an increase of spending by 10.6% this year, raising the GEBR/GERD ratio from 6% to more than 8%, the ratio would still be one-half of the 15% average of developed countries (see Fig. 2), and the total volume would only be one-fifth of the United States.

Figure 2: Comparison of percentage of basic research investment in total S&T research investment between leading innovation countries (1981-2020), Source: OECD’s Main S&T Indicators 2021.

For decades, Chinese S&T policy has favored applied research that can be quickly brought to market and generate benefits. However, recent evidence suggests that China’s political leaders have recognised the importance of basic scientific research in future strategic competition. This ambition is reflected not only in the conversations of party and government leaders, but also in the 13th and 14th Five-Year Plans and a guideline from the State Council. Although China’s investment in basic research remains proportionately underrepresented in international comparisons, the government attempts to strengthen the link between basic research and the industry, and its investment in basic research is increasing annually. With the achievements and regrets of the past, it remains to be seen whether China can leave an original and unique mark in the future of basic scientific development.

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