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Editorial: China Must Enshrine Norms of Research to Become a Tech Leader

High-quality development is unthinkable without innovation. The development of science and technology depends on multiple factors, with science and technology administration playing a crucial role. Science and technology administration in China have made marginal improvements over the past decades, but some bad habits remain entrenched. On May 28, President Xi Jinping emphasized at a meeting of China’s science and engineering academicians that the country should be willing to take risks and work through difficulties to overcome ideological obstacles and reform its administration of the science and technology sectors. In order to measure the success of reforms in China’s science and technology administration, we must observe the extent to which it respects the standards and normal processes of scientific research.

China’s total investment in science and technology is considerable, thanks to the large size of its economy as a whole, and the financial problems that researchers in the past faced have mostly been eradicated. In 2017, spending on research and development accounted for 2% of China’s gross domestic product, roughly equivalent to levels in the European Union. China’s numbers of research and development personnel, papers published in international scientific journals, and new patents are among the highest in the world. However, the general consensus is that China is still not a strong player in science and technology fields, and its current capabilities are insufficient for meeting its development needs. The gap between China and developed countries is still relatively wide, and China lacks self-sufficiency in some key areas.

The main reason for this is a lag in the reform of China’s science and technology administration. Technology and the arts together represent the height of human creativity, and they require an environment of tolerance and freedom just as living things need oxygen. Government management of science and technology research should, first and foremost, serve the research itself, and should be different from other kinds of government policy. China’s science and technology administration must truly realize the full potential of human and other resources, and official strategies should trust and respect scientific talent, rather than prioritizing the whims and beliefs of senior officials.

The key is to demolish the administrative legacy of the planned economy in order to respect scientific research standards and practices. Using administrative measures to directly manage research projects not only causes inefficiency and waste, but also hinders the cultivation and growth of innovators. The frequently criticized culture in which seniority and relationships determine which research projects are favored and allocated resources is largely a product of this kind of administration. Under this system, scientific and technological excellence are no longer the criteria by which research is judged. It is not surprising, then, that in China, scientific ideas become distorted and research becomes governed by unspoken, nonscientific rules. Many young scientists are happy to abandon academic standards in order to be “promoted” to directors of research offices. People have already become accustomed to such strange things.

Allocation of funding for scientific research has become increasingly driven by rigid administrative practices in recent years, with researchers complaining that strict management of expenses has affected their work. The arrest of top animal-cloning researcher Li Ning for corruption in 2014 has cast a large shadow over management of scientific expenses in China. The central government has repeatedly made promises that it will improve the management of research projects and science funding, but the problem has not yet been effectively solved. This is because the solution is not simply a matter of fixing a few procedures, but rather requires a fundamental reorientation of the country’s scientific research system.

The debate over what relationship scientific research should have with the free market has been raging in China for years. This is largely caused by a conflation of pure scientific research with applied science due to the crudeness and inertia of administrative management. Although projects frequently combine the two types of scientific research, they are fundamentally different. The Chinese government should explore suitable administrative practices for the development of pure and applied science, separately. Otherwise, the country will likely find itself in the embarrassing situation of not being able to make general breakthroughs in pure science research, despite occasional gratifying achievements in individual fields that fail to be developed further. It will also have difficulty resolving the disconnect between the economy and science and technology, and once researchers receive patents and professional titles, the results of their work will frequently be ignored. China must make greater progress in encouraging pure research, in order to reach achievements benefiting the size and potential of its economy. The country should refrain from shortsightedness and an overemphasis on utility.

Policies to promote scientific and technological innovation must cover a wide range of issues, including determining the role of the government and establishing a mechanism for innovative collaboration between industry, education, and research. The drawbacks of direct government involvement in science and technology research, fragmentation of management, and overlap between institutions are clear and must be dealt with in a timely manner. The main function of the government should be to create infrastructure and institutions for the development of science and technology, rather than to determine the specifics of how projects should be run and evaluated. The government should also realize that the key to good scientific research doesn’t only lie within the fields of science and technology, that China lacks a market environment of fair competition for scientific research, and that intellectual property rights lack protection. China’s central government is attempting to improve the current situation. It unveiled in August 2015 a plan for deepening reform in science and technology by 2020, and one of the tasks mentioned in the plan is actively creating a fair, open and transparent market environment with strict intellectual property protections. The public eagerly awaits the implementation of this plan.

Well-built scientific research and education systems are not enough to ensure world-class technological innovation, nor are they enough to guarantee smooth industry application of scientific breakthroughs. The current mechanisms for collaboration between industry, education, and research does not work smoothly enough. One of the main reasons is the relative disconnect between research and educational institutions and industry. China needs to further clarify the roles of businesses and institutions within the process of innovation in order to make full use of the massive scientific and technological resources available to research and higher education institutes, and to encourage researchers. In recent years, the government has encouraged researchers to approach businesses with project proposals or to share their research results. However, because of a lack of safeguards, scientific researchers are reluctant to do so. Mechanisms for cooperative innovation should be enshrined in law in order to ensure stability and sustainability, rather than simply laid out in official documents or individual leaders’ statements.

Like China’s education system, its science and technology system has been criticized for years but remains unimproved. This situation must change. The central government has tasked the relevant departments with finding solutions as soon as possible. But while it is not difficult to publish a few documents offering “solutions,” China will achieve true reform of its scientific research system only through the respect for and compliance with the rules of science itself. Only then will the famous question asked by rocket scientist Qian Xuesen — “Why can’t we cultivate top-notch talent?” — be solved, and China’s ambition to become a truly innovative country be realized.

Translated by Teng Jing Xuan (jingxuanteng@caixin.com)

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