China will invest heavily in S&T over the next 5 years and cut red tape hampering science spending with the hope that innovation will help the country weather its economic slowdown.
In a speech to open the National People’s Congress on 5 March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang—the country’s top economic official—gave a broad-brush overview of the central government’s draft plan for economic development during the 13th 5-year plan, which runs from 2016 to 2020. Major elements include boosting science spending, which will rise 9.1% this year to 271 billion yuans ($41 billion), reducing bureaucratic barriers for scientists, and improving environmental protection while curbing carbon emissions and other pollutants.
“Innovation is the primary driving force for development and must occupy a central place in China's development strategy,” Li told delegates on the first day of the 2-week congress. Li’s speech, considered a guidepost for the specific policies that will be fleshed out in the next year or two, used the word “innovation” 61 times—nearly double the mentions it received in his work report last year, the state-run Xinhua News Agency pointed out.
The 5-year plan, which serves as a framework for the Chinese Communist Party’s long-term development goals, contains few concrete details on exactly how such measures will be implemented or funded. Instead, it contains a long list of priorities, from building national science centers and space programs to expansion of major infrastructure with thousands of kilometers of new high-speed rail and roadways. China’s new plan promises that by 2020, R&D investment will account for 2.5% of gross domestic product, compared with 2.05% in 2014.
Chinese scientists welcome the budget boost for science, but note that the real impact remains in the as-yet unknown details. “The government always has big plans, but it’s an uncertain time for the economy so we have to watch what happens next. Implementation is crucial,” says Wang Tao, an energy and climate analyst with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
China’s economic growth slowed to 6.9% in 2015, and the government has set a 5-year GDP growth target of 6.5% to 7%. In Li’s outline, technology and infrastructure investments figure prominently in what officials clearly hope is a new growth strategy less reliant on manufacturing and heavy industry.
Themes in the new 5-year plan include the domestic production of gas-turbine engines and planes, and increased focus on neuroscience and genetic research, national cyberspace security, and deep space exploration. Chinese aerospace officials told state media last week they hope to launch a Mars probe by 2020. Big data, high-tech medical devices, and cloud computing also earned mention as priority projects. Li spoke of tax breaks for companies that invest in high-priority endeavors and promised a reduction of bureaucratic hurdles to promote R&D.
“We will implement the strategy of innovation-driven development, see that science and technology become more deeply embedded in the economy, and improve the overall quality and competitiveness of the real economy,” Li said.
The plan spells out some measures for China’s environmental protection and energy production, but it’s unclear how much the measures will differ from what is already underway. By 2020, the government wants to reduce energy consumption by 15% and carbon emissions by 18%. In a news conference yesterday, Xu Shaoshi, the head of the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing, said China will remove 500 million tons of coal production capacity in the next 3 to 5 years. Meanwhile, nuclear power capacity is slated to double to 58 gigawatts installed by 2020.
China is reorganizing its environment ministry to create separate departments focused on water, air, and soil. Scientists applaud what they view as a concerted government effort to tackle soil pollution. “After so many years of rapid industrialization and urbanization in China, soil pollution is clearly now evident and needs due attention,” says Yong-Guan Zhu, director general of the Institute of Urban Environment in Xiamen. He says that measures should include creation of a national soil surveillance system.
With reporting by Christina Larson.