China
你好, 中国 - From Workbench Economy to a Leader in Science and Technology (Pt I)

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 07/2013


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The dark side of National Programmes

China’s main funding instruments are the national R&D programmes, which account for roughly a fifth of all governmental R&D expenses. With their high investment into prioritised topics these programmes have a deep impact on shaping China’s R&D landscape. However, since their launch in 1982 the National Programmes have always been a source of high-profile cases of fraud, corruption, wastefulness and obscure allocation processes based on cronyism rather than scientific merit.

Major programmes include the National Basic Research Programme (Programme 973), which promotes basic research in changing priority areas with five-year research grants worth up to €6 million, the National High Technology R&D Programme (code 863), initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1986 to strengthen international competitiveness in the high technology sector, and the Programme for Building National Laboratories, which so far has led to the establishment of about 20 National Laboratories. Sixteen National S&T Major projects, also called megaprojects, were identified by the State Council in 2006 and are considered the most important mid- to long-term projects in China. They are co-financed by the business sector, regional partners and existing national programmes. Among the civil projects, three projects focus on genetically modified organisms, on the prevention and treatment of key infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and on drug discovery. The Spark Programme aims to alleviate imbalances between the innovation hotspots on China’s east coast and rural areas, whereas the Torch Programme targets the commercialisation of new technologies by new high technology zones and incubators.

CAS – Difficult childhood and legacy

The Chinese Academy of Sciences is the most prominent research organisation in China, with multiple roles as research funder, research performer and science policy advisor. Postgraduate education, talent cultivation and recruitment, international cooperation, technology transfer and science popularisation are additional activities. When CAS was founded as the national academy for natural sciences after the Russian model in 1949, there were only 30 research institutions in China and about 600 people involved in research at all. CAS became the national research coordinator, but lost influence when the Ministry of Science and Technology was established and was further downsized during the Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s. Pushed forward by consecutive National Knowledge Innovation Programmes since 1998, CAS slowly recovered and took the lead once again in cranking up China’s science and innovation system.

As a learned society, CAS has six academic divisions, including one for Life Sciences and Medical Sciences as well as one for Technological Sciences. Being elected to CAS is the highest level of national honour for Chinese scientists and is associated with a plenitude of privileges, including lifelong employment and, at least in some instances, great influence on funding decisions. The membership system differentiates between full, emeritus and foreign members. Last year, there were 710 members of CAS including 43 women and 64 foreign nationals. Recent media reports claiming that Zhang Shuguang, the main driving force behind China’s high-speed rail system, misused funds to engage groups of ghostwriters to improve his publication record and to bribe existing CAS members to obtain a fellowship at CAS in the biennial election were denied by CAS.

Major reforms of CAS and its institutions have been initiated and are still ongoing. The long-term strategy CAS Roadmap 2050 and the Innovation 2020 Programme are in place. The priorities of Innovation 2020 are applied to industrial technologies in seven key areas, including nuclear fusion and nuclear-waste management, stem cells and regenerative medicine and others. Targeted areas in basic research encompass materials and life sciences, chemistry, physics and more. Multidisciplinary research and a coordinated approach in the areas of space science, clean coal technologies and geoscience monitoring devices will be facilitated by three novel research centres.

New science parks in the Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong provinces are supposed to accelerate the path from basic research into marketable products focusing on renewable energy, information technology and bio­medicine. Most importantly, the implementation of the 2020 strategy is expected to, “enhance research freedom, improve research quality, deploy resources more efficiently and bring greater benefit to society”. However, younger Chinese scientists worry that it will take at least 10 to 20 years before the old guard is gone and in-depth reform in all areas of CAS will be possible.

Heavy investment into Big Science


China’s favourite, the giant panda’s genome sequence was published in 2010. Strangely, the Nature editors had to issue a correction as, of all things, the main protagonist’s Latin species name “was written incorrectly”. Photo: Fotolia/wusuowei

CAS is headquartered in Beijing and headed by the nanoscientist Bai Chunli. It comprises more than 120 units encompassing about 100 research institutes and an increasing number of universities. Examples include the University of Science and Technology in China (USTC) in Hefei and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) in Beijing, which, with now close to 40,000 graduate students, was founded last year and replaced the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In addition, it operates either jointly or alone seven National Laboratories, which are the most important research centres at the national level, receiving priority funds by MOST, more than 100 National and 200 CAS Key Laboratories and engineering centres as well as 1,000 field stations. CAS is in charge of the majority of China’s Big Science facilities including the Beijing Electron Positron Collider, the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species in Southwest China. Under construction are the National Facility for Protein Science in Shanghai, the Wuhan Biological Safety Lab and the Five hundred metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), which will become the world’s most sensitive radio telescope by 2016.

CAS’s annual budget is steadily on the rise, currently approaching around €4 billion. Last year more than 32,000 research projects worth roughly €2.5 billion were carried out. Basic research, applied research and experimental development accounted for 40%, 53% and 7% of research expenses, respectively. CAS has a total permanent staff of about 65,000, including 21,000 full or associate professors. CAS is also a key player in postgraduate education. Being a CAS graduate ensures a certain standard of quality and is of great help to group leaders from abroad who must cope with a flood of Chinese applications. In 2012, there were over 22,000 PhD students associated with CAS and every fifth PhD student in China was completing his doctorate there. CAS also owns two publishing houses producing more than 270 different journals.

High output with increasing impact

Publication numbers by CAS scientists are on the rise and their low citation rates are improving, too. For example, the Nature Publishing Index Asia-Pacific gives a hint of the output and impact of publications derived from CAS institutions. Due to the selection of Nature journals, half of which have an impact factor above 20, the survey can draw conclusions primarily about basic science. In comparison to the previous year, CAS more than doubled its number of articles, emerged as the second best organisation in Asia and reached 12th place globally. In the weekly-updated online version of the index, the four leading CAS institutes are the Beijing Institute of Physics, with a focus on semiconductors, the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, with strengths in genomics, cell signalling and neuroscience, the Beijing Institute of Biophysics hosting the National Lab of Biomacromolecules and State Key Lab of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and the Guangzhou Institutes of Bio­medicine and Health. Altogether, 57 CAS institutes are represented, with the majority having just one or two entries.

With respect to overall scientific output, CAS as a whole surpassed not only the Russian Academy of Sciences but also Harvard, the German Helmholtz Association and Max Planck Society in the latest ­SCImago Institution Ranking. It was only defeated by the French National Centre for Scientific Research. However, if institutes are ranked in subrankings, putting more weight on the impact of publications, individual CAS institutes (with the exception of National Centres) often lag behind. If high-quality publications in the upper quartile are taken into account, the three leading CAS institutions are the Beijing National Lab for Molecular Sciences (global rank 140 and no. 4 in Asia), the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing (global rank 241 and no. 10 in Asia) and the Shenyang National Lab for Materials Science (global rank 311 and no. 12 in Asia).

The number of articles published by CAS scientists as first authors and identifiable in major international indexes reached 30,000 publications last year. However, the number of articles published in domestic journals has been on the decline since 2006. The number of national patent applications and granted patents is also increasing, but the number of foreign patents is still below 2%. CAS is also quite active when it comes to technology transfer, spin-offs and joint ventures with industry. It transferred 8,500 items of technology last year, incubated more than 500 spin-offs and held stakes in more than 450 enterprises. One of the prime examples of CAS’s commercialisation efforts is the world’s second largest PC vendor Lenovo, which was started by members of the CAS Beijing Institute of Computing Technology 30 years ago. Another is BGI-Shen­zhen, a spin out of the CAS Beijing Institute of Genomics, which, with 4,000 employees, is estimated to account for almost half of the world’s gene sequencing capabilities.

Not always welcome to stay

Partnerships with more than 60 countries and more than 800 agreements with international research institutions are managed by the Bureau of International Co-operation. Some partner organisations, such as the German Max Planck Society and the French Institut Pasteur, have set up joint institutes in China. The CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai, which was based on the model of the Max Planck Institutes and was financed to a third with German funds between 2005 and 2012, is administratively and legally a CAS institute. The Institut Pasteur of Shanghai was established in 2004 and is a joint effort of CAS, the Shanghai Municipal Government and the French Institut Pasteur. Individuals benefit from the CAS Foreign Talent Programme targeting all levels of scientists from abroad. The programme aims primarily to establish initial contacts and to enable short-term research stints rather than to absorb or integrate foreigners. The Fellowships for Young International Scientists programme funds stays of up to one year at a CAS institute, which is extendable for another year.

To participate, you must first contact the group leader of your choice, since all applications are handled via the host institute. To qualify as a receiving host, the CAS scientist has to provide proof of his PhD title and of ongoing funded research projects. Applications as a postdoc require a doctorate, an age of below 35, good communication skills in English and a commitment to abide by the laws of the PRC and the regulations of the host institution. As a research scientist you should be under the age of 40, have over five years of research experience and a proven track record. In addition to a round-trip ticket, postdocs and research scientists may receive up to €18,000 and €30,000 per year, respectively, which is not that much. Since housing is sometimes provided and if you don’t mind staying in a noodle box, this should be sufficient to survive even in China’s most expensive cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.



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Last Changed: 26.11.2013




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