Science minister Wan Gang has spoken out in favor of a reform that could strip his ministry of considerable power in allotting research funds.

Science minister Wan Gang has spoken out in favor of a reform that could strip his ministry of considerable power in allotting research funds.

Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Overhaul of Chinese science spending looms

BEIJING—The Chinese government is readying a major shake-up of how it doles out science funding. Chinese media are reporting that the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) may hand control of the lion’s share of research spending to as-yet-unidentified “independent institutes,” the state-run People’s Daily reported on 21 October.

Further details of the reform, reportedly to be implemented over 3 to 5 years, have not been revealed. But if MOST were to relinquish control of research spending, “that’s a big deal,” says Cao Cong, an expert on Chinese science at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. The science ministry in 2013 doled out 22 billion RMB ($3.6 billion) in R&D funding, according to estimates by Cao and Dalian University of Technology’s Yutao Sun, primarily through its 863 high-tech development and 973 basic research programs.

Widespread corruption and misaligned incentives are widely seen as sapping the vitality from China’s R&D enterprise. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is embarking on a reform of its own institutes aimed at spurring innovation and eliminating redundant research programs. Similar thinking seems to be driving the new approach to MOST-controlled funding. “China will reform state research fund management, delegating power to independent institutes in a bid to curb academic corruption and sharpen innovation,” according to Xinhua, the state-run newswire. “The government will no longer be in direct charge of research projects.” People’s Daily says the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the State Council have approved the plan’s broad outlines.

Zhao Lu, director of the education, science, and culture department at the Ministry of Finance, told Xinhua that the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC)—China’s equivalent to the U.S. National Science Foundation—could serve as a model for what may be a new agency for managing R&D spending. NSFC has a reputation for greater transparency and for peer review of projects initiated by principal investigators.

In an interview with China Radio, Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang welcomed the pending reform, saying that it’s intended to “get rid of the shackles on technological innovation.” “We still don’t know yet who will be in charge—that’s the biggest question,” Cao says. “My guess is that it could be a new agency.”