Science and technology in China

From Academic Kids


Ancient and imperial China

Much of the Western work in the history of science in China has been done by Joseph Needham. Among the scientific accomplishments of China were the invention of the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing. They are celebrated in Chinese culture as the Four Great Inventions of ancient China. Chinese astronomers were also among the first to record observations of a supernova.

One question that has been the subject of debate among historians has been why China did not develop a scientific revolution and why Chinese technology fell behind that of Europe in the 19th century. Many hypotheses have been proposed ranging from the cultural to the political and economic. Nathan Sivin ( has argued that China indeed had a scientific revolution in the 17th Century and that we are still far from understanding the scientific revolutions of the West and China in all their political, economic and social ramifications. John K. Fairbank argued that the Chinese political system was hostile to scientific progress.

More recent historians have questioned political and cultural explanations and have focused more on economic causes. Mark Elvin's high level equilibrium trap is one well-known example of this line of thought, as well as Kenneth Pommeranz' argument that resources from the New World were made crucial difference between European and Chinese development.

Communist China

Science and technology have long preoccupied China's leaders; indeed, the People's Republic of China's third and fourth generations of leaders come almost exclusively from technical backgrounds—both Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji were trained as electrical power engineers—and have a great reverence for science. Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer. Deng Xiaoping called it "the first productive force." Distortions in the economy and society created by Communist Party of China rule traditionally has hurt Chinese science, according to some Chinese science policy experts. Before the 1990s, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, modeled on the Soviet system, placed much of China's greatest scientific talent in a large, under-funded apparatus that remains largely isolated from industry. However, as a result of Chinese economic reform, most Chinese scientific institutions have been encouraged to commercialize their activities, and Chinese scientists have increasing began to "Xiahai" (enter the sea) or go into business.

The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council, on May 6, 1995 issued the 'Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council on the Acceleration of Progress in Science and Technology'. The 'Decision' set the goal of overall (both public and private) to attain Chinese R&D spending equivalent to 1.5 percent of GDP by the year 2000. It urged scientific academies and institutes of higher education to set up high tech companies. The 'Decision' noted that science and technology are the chief forces of social and economic development. The leadership directed Chinese science and technology problems such as population control, feeding China's people, the environment (including pollution abatement technologies), and public health (such as pharmaceuticals development).

The 'Decision' called for a reform of the Chinese science and technology structure to meet the needs of the socialist market economy. Science should move out of the institutes into private enterprises. Government research institutes should enter into cooperative ventures with Chinese and foreign companies, decide by themselves what direction their research should take, and become responsible for whatever profits or losses they incur. The flow of personnel, information, and capital must become faster and smoother so that companies (as well as government research institutes and universities which have created their own high tech companies) can orient their research programs according to market needs (and consequently to what the market is willing to fund).

Peer review by funding organizations such as the National Science Foundation of China over the past decade has improved the effectiveness of science funding and raised the quality of Chinese science. The NNSFC in 1999 funded 16 percent of the 20,000 grant applications it receives each year from its annual budget of RMB 800 million (USD 100 million) which has increased nearly 20 percent annually since the founding of the NNSFC ten years ago. NNSFC now awards more research grants on a competitive basic than does the Ministry of Science and Technology which awards RMB 500 million annually. NNSFC grants often serve as seed money attesting to the quality of a project. Local government money often follows thereafter. The Chinese leadership set the goal of total (central and local government) Chinese spending on basic and applied research to reach 1.5 percent of GDP by the year 2000. NNSFC spending is a small but growing fraction of that amount.

Shielded from government-wide funding costs, the NNSFC’s budget is becoming an increasingly large part of China’s basic research spending. Grants include neither overhead nor salary but are dedicated to direct research costs. The Chinese government calls for spending on basic research and applied research to total 1.5 percent of GDP by the year 2000. Three types of programs: young scientist, building science in the developing regions of China and new high tech concepts account for 80 percent of the NNSFC budget. The young scientist program also provides for short-term (up to six months) training overseas and for the support of visiting foreign scientists.

The review panels: Chinese scientists serve for two to four years on a review panel for their field. The process from application to decision on the three year grants takes about six months. The NNSFC funds 60 major projects at 5 million RMB per year and 500 - 600 other projects at 1 million RMB per year as well as a large number of smaller grants at 150,000 RMB per year. The grants are low compared with the average U.S. grant size but are larger than they appear since the grants are for direct research costs and exclude salaries which typically account for 60 percent of U.S. research grants. One scientist told said that the invention of the Chinese word processor made peer review possible, since “I know the calligraphy of everyone in my field!”.

Agricultural research: NNSFC funds applied research for agriculture. Important progress has been made on proteinase inhibitors which kill insects by halting their digestive processes.

Work on medicine and drugs in China includes the development of hepatitis vaccines and studies on the activity of traditional Chinese materia medica. For the first few decades of the PRC, Chinese research focused on examining the traditional pharmacopoeia from the perspective of modern medicine to identify active ingredients in Chinese medicines. This approach was not very successful, said NNSFC officials recently, so now research examines the effect of traditional Chinese medicines on the whole body. These include efforts to understand the effectiveness of traditional pharmaceuticals in such areas as post-stroke rehabilitation.

Some Chinese traditional medicines are now used to reduce suffering and extend the lives of HIV victims in China. Chinese assistance workers in Africa also provide these remedies to their patients. Trachosantheum derived from a traditional Chinese pharmaceutical has been a valuable tool to combating multiple-drug resistant malarial strains in South Asia. Important work on this drug has been done at the Institute of Cell Biology in Shanghai.

NNSFC began funding projects on biodiversity in 1993. There are six research groups working on biodiversity, one of which is in Beijing.

China’s Genome project is headquartered in Shanghai. Since 1993, the Chinese Genome Project has carried out genome structural analyses, collected samples of Chinese minorities for a national depository and developed techniques for human genome research informatics. The project started with the rice genome and expanded to human genome research with a focus on disease-causing genes. A liver cancer gene project begun in 1993 is now focusing on chromosome 17. Other groups focus on genes associated with esophageal cancer and psychological disorders. A research group at the Institute of Medical Biology at West China University in Chengdu is looking for disease causing genes in several cell lines. Twelve institutes and nineteen research groups are involved in the human genome project. Shanghai has become a major Chinese center for biotechnology and human genome research.

The Distinguished Young Scholars program. About ten researchers are funded on three year grants worth RMB 600,000 per year. Disease gene study from the 863 National High Tech Plan --- RMB 50 million per year.

Grants awarded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China fall within areas which are designated as scientific priorities by the current Five Year Plan. Thus funding decisions are based on a judgment on how research opportunities and interests of researcher match national science goals enunciated in the Five year Plan. Within these designated areas, the peer review panels make awards. A wide range of basic science activities are funded as can be seen from the current “Guide to Programs of the National Natural Science Foundation of China" published annually by the Military Medical Science Press (Taiping Rd. No. 27, Beijing 100850 CHINA). The Guide can also be found on the National Natural Science Foundation of China website (

Many fields discussed in the 150 page “Guide to Programs” break down into the areas of mathematical and physical sciences; chemistry and chemical engineering, life sciences, earth sciences, engineering and material sciences, information science, management science, and special interdisciplinary fields such as environmental science, global change, polar region research, natural disaster reduction and fundamental research on scientific instruments.

Global Change Global change research projects include the carbon cycle in ice zones of Antarctica; the relationship between elevation of carbon dioxide concentrations in atmosphere and aquatic organisms, and the effect of sulphocompounds in China on global change. The global change program is linked to four international programs on global change: the International Geosphere and Biosphere Program (IGBP), the World Climate Research Program (WCRP), the Human Dimensions Program for Global Change (HDP/GC) and DIVERSITAS.

Chinese science strategists see Mainland China's greatest opportunities in newly emerging fields such as biotechnology and computers where there is still a chance for the PRC to become a significant player. Most Chinese students who went abroad have not returned, but they have built a dense network of transpacific contacts that will greatly facilitate U.S.-China scientific cooperation in coming years. The United States is often held up as the standard of modernity in the PRC. Indeed, photos of the Space Shuttle often appear in Chinese advertisements as a symbol of advanced technology. The PRC's small but growing space program, whose Shenzhou spacecraft had carried the first human taikonaut safely into space from PRC on October 15 2003, is a focus of national pride.

The U.S.-P.R.C. Science and Technology Agreement remains the framework for bilateral cooperation in this field. A 5-year agreement to extend the S&T Agreement was signed in April 2001. There are currently over 30 active protocols under the Agreement, covering cooperation in areas such as marine conservation, renewable energy, and health. Japan and the European Union also have high profile science and technology cooperative relationships with the People's Republic of China. Biennial Joint Commission Meetings on Science and Technology bring together policymakers from both sides to coordinate joint S&T cooperation. Executive Secretaries meetings are held each year to implement specific cooperation programs.

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