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15 New Projects Bolster Basic Research

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Science  18 Dec 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5397, pp. 2171
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5397.2171

BEIJING– After an intense nationwide competition, China has selected 15 projects to inaugurate one of the largest basic research programs in the country's history. The program, which will receive $300 million and run through 2003, has been endorsed at the highest level: “It is a top concern to make China prosper through science and education,” says Premier Zhu Rongji. The winning projects (see table) will be officially announced next week by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

The projects, which concentrate R&D resources in rapidly growing fields that are expected to contribute to the country's economic prosperity, are the first to be awarded under an initiative called Program 973. It's named for the year and month (March 1997) it was proposed by the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top consultative body. The competition was fierce. Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), universities, and government agencies submitted 207 proposals in six areas that the government designated as national priorities. Specialist reviewers winnowed the contenders to 25, and a 19-member cross-disciplinary expert panel made the final selection after hearing presentations from researchers and relevant agency officials.

“The officials related the state's needs in each field, a very important factor in the panel's decision making,” explains Shao Liqin, deputy director-general of MOST's Department of Basic Research. The program is seen as complementing a 1991 initiative aimed at stimulating applied research in strategic areas. To encourage younger scientists, says Zhu Lilan, the government also required that principal investigators should be less than 60 years old.

Another 10 projects are still in the running, says Zhang Cunhao, deputy chair of the expert panel and president of the National Natural Science Foundation (NNSF), which coordinated the review with MOST. “They can re-enter next year” as part of plans to hold an annual competition through 2003, he says, “and some of them have high hopes of being endorsed as key projects,” he says. Each 973 project is expected to receive between $2.5 million and $7.5 million over 5 years, which dwarfs the amounts given out by NNSF. “The input into each of the 15 projects is 10 times” what NNSF would normally provide, Zhang says.

Although the 15 projects span the six priority areas, Science and Technology Minister Zhu Lilan says some important fields are not represented because of a dearth of eligible applications. One notable omission, she says, is research into how to improve prenatal care and reduce the number of babies born each year with disabilities. While the need is great, she adds, no high-quality proposals were submitted. “It seems that some scientists capable of doing the research in this area have not paid enough attention to this issue.”

Scientists whose projects were chosen for the program welcome the additional resources. Wu Wenjun, a mathematician with the CAS Systems Science Institute in Beijing and a member of CAS, says that the new grant will quadruple funding, to nearly $500,000 a year, for his lab's work on developing expert systems. “So, we will be able to do things that were impossible before,” he says. “We can develop our own software and apply our findings to reality instead of only exploring such applications in theory.” Wu, in his 70s, has ceded control over the project to one of his students, 35-year-old Gao Xiaoshan, in keeping with the stated principle that the research projects should be headed by younger scientists. “It's high time to allow young people to display their talents,” he says.

The 973 program is only one of several channels that the Chinese government is using to increase support for basic research. In June, Premier Zhu approved a Knowledge Innovation Program at CAS that will provide $650 million over 3 years to strengthen basic research across the academy. CAS is in the process of consolidating or closing roughly one-third of its 120 institutes. MOST is already supporting some 200 national key labs, which received $10.5 million this year. And the government recently announced that money for the construction and operation of large-scale scientific projects will grow by some $240 million over the next 5 years. University-based research should also benefit from a government pledge to boost education spending by one percentage point of the country's domestic national product each year for the next 5 years, says Shao.

Ranked research.

Life and information sciences lead the way in new basic research program.

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