Basic Research in China

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Science  29 Jan 1999:
Vol. 283, Issue 5402, pp. 637
DOI: 10.1126/science.283.5402.637

Although ancient China contributed greatly to many of the world's major scientific and technological developments, it fell behind Western countries starting with the late Ming Dynasty. With the founding of the People's Republic, China's science and technology sector started to grow rapidly. During the past four decades, China has successfully set up a modern science and technology system whose research capability is more advanced than that of other developing countries and even reaches international levels in some areas. But China's infrastructure for basic research still has a long way to go before it catches up with the developed world.

Some of the measures China has already undertaken to promote basic research include setting up the National Natural Science Foundation and about 156 national key laboratories as well as many ministry-affiliated laboratories. Among China's advanced research facilities are the Beijing Electron-Positron Collider, the Lanzhou Heavy Ion Accelerator, an aerodynamic testing facility, and several large telescopes. Chinese scientists have made significant international achievements in the areas of high-temperature superconductors, condensed-matter physics, genetic engineering, and East Asian Monsoon research. In the emerging disciplines such as molecular biology, surface chemistry, surface physics, nonlinear sciences, and earth system sciences, rapid progress has also been made.

The number of publications authored by mainland Chinese scientists in major international academic journals has been increasing yearly, ranking 20th in the world in 1985, 11th in 1996, and 9th in 1997. In terms of articles indexed by Science Citation Index (SCI), China ranked 14th in 1996 and 12th in 1997.

Even with these achievements, China's scientific development is still far behind that of the developed world. In 1996, the number of publications authored by mainland Chinese scientists and indexed by SCI was only 5% of that of U.S. scientists and 19% of that of British scientists. China is internationally competitive in only about 5% of basic science fields and enjoys a relatively high level of performance in only about 20% of these fields. Basic research in China faces problems because of the lack of innovations and major breakthroughs with an international impact, the lack of an effective mechanism for optimal personnel flow, and the lack of young people involved in basic research.

To help alleviate these problems, the Chinese government has created the “State Key Program of Basic Research,” identifying the targets and tasks of Chinese basic research up to the year 2010. As part of this program, we hope to carry out multidisciplinary research to address key problems arising in national economic and social development and in science and technology development, in such areas as agriculture, energy, information, resources and the environment, population and health, and materials. We also hope to set up a number of world-class scientific projects that represent China's comprehensive science and technology capability, to train high-caliber innovative scientists, and to establish a group of high-level research bases that can undertake key national science and technology tasks.

China expects to improve its processes for selecting research projects, allocating funds, and publishing results, as well as its systems for academic evaluation and conferring awards, to make them more effective and fair. Even with limited financial resources, we plan to provide adequate technical and logistical support for conducting basic research. To create an environment for innovation, we will emphasize selecting and fostering research leaders who will then be able to balance national science priorities and policies with academic autonomy. And we will encourage scientists to cooperate with international partners.

With the continuing development of the Chinese economy, we will increase our input into basic research step by step. I believe that, as long as we uphold the strategy of “revitalizing the nation through science and education,” China's basic research will catch up with the advanced level of the developed world by the middle of the next century. The Chinese people will undoubtedly make new contributions to world scientific development.

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