In Annual Rite, Chinese Science Showered With Riches

BEIJING—Last year, Chinese researchers were over the moon when the central government bestowed a 30% increase in R&D spending. This year, they are being brought back to earth—but really can't complain. At the opening session of the National People's Congress here today, officials announced that the science and technology budget will rise 8% to 163.3 billion RMB ($24 billion) in 2010.

"We need to emancipate our minds and boldly make breakthroughs and innovations," Premier Wen Jiabao told the annual gathering of China's nearly 3000 appointed legislators. Although his "Report on the Work of the Government" contains few details of specific programs, Wen called out several areas of research for which his government "will make farsighted arrangements," including nanoscience, climate change, aerospace, and oceanography. Wen also pledged to "energetically attract high-caliber personnel from overseas"—a continuation of a policy that has successfully wooed many top Chinese scientists back to their homeland.

The big winner may be environmental science. According to a planning document released at the meeting by the country's powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), science and technology priorities this year include new energy sources, energy conservation and environmental protection, marine technology, and "biotechnological breeding." Besides the science spending, another 141.3 billion RMB ($20.7 billion) will be spent on protecting the environment.

NDRC pledged to clean up key environmental hot spots such as Tai Lake, which has been beset in recent years by algal blooms, and sources for the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, a $60 billion plan to redirect water—much of it polluted—to arid and heavily populated northeast China. Wen also noted plans this year to "accelerate afforestation, increase forest carbon sinks, and expand our forests by at least 5.92 million hectares." In 2009, trees were planted on 5.88 million hectares, increasing the percentage of China's land area covered by forests to 20.36%. That hits a target set by the State Forestry Administration, which in 2006 vowed that a fifth of China's land area would be forested by 2010. Four years ago, the figure stood at 18.2%.

Although the reports are relentlessly upbeat, a few troubling messages managed to slip out. For instance, food security remains a major concern: Grain output in 2009 was virtually unchanged from last year at 530 million tons, despite a healthy increase the year before and an initiative under way to boost output by 50 million tons by 2020.