The scope and areas of concentration of Chinese science have been laid down in greatest detail in a series of national directives. The most recent overarching directive is called the National Basic Research Program. Early in 1997, the Ministry of Science and Technology assembled an advisory committee of senior scientists and asked them what China had to do to achieve international competitiveness in the sciences while at the same time addressing its most acute domestic problems. The committee presented its recommendations in March – hence the “97-3 Program” for short – and in June they were approved at the ministerial level and above.
The language of the program’s promotional materials can be Marxist-triumphalist: one English translation asserts that “we will create an excellent scientific research environment, intensively support a group of outstanding scientific research teams, conduct important innovation research, and scale the peak of the world’s science, thus promoting the magnificent development of the China’s basic research and the hi-tech industries.” The details, though, are reasoned, practical, and in dead earnest.
Funding is, of course, the tool for directing and controlling science and scientists. To be sure, a number of Western corporations have set up facilities for technological research in China. Both IBM and Microsoft have laboratories in Beijing; Microsoft’s is reputed to be the most consistently innovative in the corporation.
The China Medical Board puts $10 million a year into medical education and research. In 2004, the Institut Pasteur, France’s nongovernmental research institution, began working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the municipal government of Shanghai to set up and staff an institute whose research focuses on the molecular biology of infectious diseases.
Two of the richest men in Hong Kong are giving money to certain specialized programs. These activities, though small in scale, have independence and visibility and so a degree of influence on the evolving culture of science in China. Otherwise, virtually all the money for science comes, through various conduits, from the government.
Zhang Xianeng is director general for basic research at the Ministry of Science and Technology. We met during a break in an all-day governmental conference held at the Fragrant Mountain Hotel – an attractive, modern quasi-resort two hours out of Beijing on the lower slopes of the hills from which it gets its name. Zhang is a biochemist. He is lean, in his early 50s but looking ten years younger, a reflective man who speaks excellent English.
“In China we have three major sources for research,” Zhang said. Their aims differ. “One is from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. This foundation supports basic research driven by curiosity of the scientists themselves. The Ministry of Science and Technology is another funding source, supporting national-demand research,” which is to say, research planned by the government to meet its urgent priorities. “We call this strategic research.” He went on, “The ministry is a government agency. We not only support basic research. We also support applied research.”
Throughout the system, distinguishing basic from applied is complex. “The Natural Science Foundation had a budget last year” – 2004 – “of about two billion yuan,” Zhang said. At the then pegged rate of 8.28 yuan to the dollar, that was roughly a quarter-billion dollars. Comparisons are awkward, though, because the cost of research is so much lower in China than in the United States. “From our ministry,” said Zhang, “10 billion” – U.S.$1.2 billion, or about a dollar per Chinese citizen. “But of the ministry’s budget, about 10 percent goes to basic research. That’s about half what the Natural Science Foundation gets.”