Jane Qiu, writing in Nature News, provides a profound story about the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ new Innovation 2020 program, which signals a recalibration of the nation’s science goals toward more applied research and commercialization. According to Qiu, the CAS will still provide strong support for basic research, but it is signaling a shift in strategic priorities in favor of applications and innovations that ultimately addresses national needs. Multidisciplinary work will also be emphasized.
In particular, Qiu notes that Innovation 2020 charts out several break-through areas and three new research centers:
“Innovation 2020 will kick off with new projects this year in seven key areas, including nuclear fusion and nuclear-waste management; stem cells and regenerative medicine; and calculating the flux of carbon between land, oceans and atmosphere. Other priority areas include materials science, information technology, public health and the environment.
To coordinate resources better and to foster multidisciplinary research, the academy will set up three research centers for space science, clean coal technologies and geoscience monitoring devices. It also plans to build three science parks — in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province, respectively — to accelerate the conversion of basic research into marketable products, especially in renewable energy, information technology and biomedicine.
Innovation 2020 builds on the CAS’s 1998 Knowledge Innovation Program. Chinese research spending surged under KIP and produced an explosion of published research. If ACerS’ experience is any indication, the number of published papers and presenters in the Society’s journals and conferences by Chinese researchers has certainly made us very aware of their significant work over the last decade.
CAS touts that as a result of KIP, “compared to the world’s 86 national academic research institutions, CAS scored in the top 10 in 14 subjects. Of those, in eight subjects, including chemistry, materials science, mathematics, engineering, computer science, environment and ecology, earth science and physics, CAS was ranked in the top five.”
However, Qiu says CAS leaders are raising the bar:
“But the report acknowledges that there is substantial room for improvement. For example, CAS researchers should aim to become leaders of the international scientific community, and shift their focus away from generating as many papers as possible and towards genuine originality and innovation.”
CAS currently has 50,000 employees, 12 branch officers and 103 affiliated institutes, labs and engineering research centers.
In regard to revenues generated by CAS-related companies, President Yongxiang Lu reports that income was over 170 billion RMB (~$26 billion) in 2010. This represents approximately a 20-fold increase since 2000.
According to the Xinhua news service, “The CAS deputy president, Bai Chunli, said 2011 would serve as a pilot and start up period for the program, while breakthroughs in strategically important scientific fields, such as energy, health, environment and advanced materials, were expected in the following years.”
Qualitatively improving the national research-development- demonstration-deployment conveyor belt is a goal shared by many countries, including the U.S. However, making these improvements requires significant and politically difficult strategic decisions about shaking up the status quo in regard to funding, infrastructure, status and accountability. There is no guarantee that China will succeed, for the same reasons.
But China is riding on a lot of momentum from the 1998-2010 period. CAS has laid out its goals fairly starkly, so it will be interesting to watch.