The committee that recommended the 97-3 Program still functions to propose priorities for the ministry’s approval. Even the “curiosity-driven” research supported by the Natural Science Foundation must fall within the categories of the program, conforming to the five-year plans of the research organizations. Architects of the program acknowledge, at least in principle, the need to let scientists shape their own research. In tension with that, though, they have devised a system of formal controls. Sixty-one “disciplinary evaluation panels” have been set up, with 753 experts. Institutions submit proposals by March 31. Each of these is vetted by one of the foundation’s seven scientific departments, which range from mathematical and physical through chemical, life, and earth to engineering, information, and management sciences.
Next step is peer review, done by correspondence and drawing on a pool of more than 20,000 reviewers; whether such reviewing is rigorous and free from bias must be in question (as is also true in the West). The results are analyzed and projects sent up to the evaluation panels, which submit surviving projects to an annual Natural Science Foundation meeting. Grants are for five years, and progress is reviewed after the first two – a system called “2+3” – to avoid the problem that once a project has won funding, the research team sits back and “the thinking becomes ossified,” said Zhang.
“The third source of support, of course, is CAS, the Chinese Academy of Sciences,” Zhang said. The nation’s top scientists are academicians, and in that respect the Chinese academy is like the National Academy of Sciences in the United States or Britain’s Royal Society; but it much more resembles the Max Planck Society in Germany, because it, too, directly runs a host of institutes, the most important in centers such as Beijing or Shanghai, with others scattered across the country.
These at one time numbered upwards of 130; but here, too, consolidations have been ordered. Many of those remaining have been shrunk through forced retirements, leaving more adequate support for those scientists who remain – and who can meet the pressure to raise additional funds outside. “CAS is bombarded for its institutes,” Zhang said. “But they have very big freedom. Either curiosity-driven research” – about 40 percent of their budget – “or the strategic basic research.”