China Sets Huge R&D Budget Boost

BEIJING—The United States and Japan are not the only countries hoping that a massive windfall for science will help rescue their economies. In response to the global financial crisis, China is upping its R&D spending in 2009 to $25.7 billion, a hefty 25.6% increase over 2008, says Du Zhanyuan, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology here. With this increase, China is rapidly closing the science funding gap with Japan, which this year has allotted $37.1 billion for R&D.

Much of China’s boost, revealed in an announcement at a trade fair last month that has received little publicity, will go to applied research. The government plans to spend $4.8 billion on 16 special S&T projects, including software development, infectious disease research, and a homegrown commercial airplane industry. Such funding levels for individual S&T projects are unprecedented, says Zhao Wang, director of the Institute of Natural Medicine at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

The new push complements an initiative unveiled in February by China’s State Council: a “key industrial adjustment and revive plan” to lend a helping hand to corporate R&D. Major initiatives include emissions reductions, semiconductor-based lighting, and energy-saving vehicles. Demonstration projects will be organized in 13 cities. China also plans to speed up development of high-tech clusters, such as the Zhongguancun Life Science Park in Beijing.

Some scientists are skeptical about the budget bonanza’s likely impact. China’s science spending “is just so much less than America,” says neuroscientist Guosong Liu of the School of Medicine at Tsinghua University. And it is skewed too far toward applied research, he says.