Spending hiked as China aims for scientific self-sufficiency

Boost in research funding is only a first step in fostering innovation, experts say

March 12, 2021
Security guards wearing face masks carry a giant balloon in the shape of a fish in Shanghai
Source: Reuters

China’s leaders have agreed to increase the national research and development budget by 7 per cent annually over the next five years – potentially matching US spending rates – as the country tries to become less dependent on the West amid increasingly fraught academic ties.

Research spending is set to jump from RMB 2.44 trillion in 2020 to RMB 3.76 trillion in 2025 (£269 billion to £415 billion), following formal approval of China’s Five-Year Plan at its annual congressional meeting.

This indicates that China’s outlay on research is set to hit 2.8 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of the period, putting it roughly on a par with US investment in 2019.

Speaking at the congressional meeting, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, put the decision in the context of growing international instability. “Internationally speaking, unstable and uncertain factors are increasing. Our innovation capability is not strong in some key fields,” he said.

Catching up with the world’s innovation leaders would be a gradual process for China, according to Bonnie Chan and Brian Hart, researchers at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power Project.

They told Times Higher Education: “Chinese universities have historically had weaker R&D linkages with businesses, especially compared to the US, which has a thriving ecosystem in which university research is often funded by businesses or is eventually commercialised.

“Developing and strengthening a similar ecosystem in China is going to take time and won’t happen overnight. Therefore, steady increases in government R&D spending are likely to help strengthen the competitiveness of China’s top universities in the medium and long run.”

More funding, they continued, could “lessen the need for them to seek grants from foreign or international companies and institutions”, while a rise in salaries and opportunities for researchers could combat brain drain in key areas such as artificial intelligence.

However, if Western countries continued to restrict research collaborations, “more Chinese government funding might not make up for the loss”, the pair said.

There was no breakdown of how the new funding would be allocated, although it is presumed that much will go to universities, as investment in basic research is expected to grow from 6 per cent of total research spending to 8 per cent.

Basic research has traditionally been handled by universities in China. Wang Zhigang, the science and technology minister, called basic research “pivotal for the country to achieve self-reliance in science and technology”.

Quy Huy, a Singapore-based professor of strategy at the business school Insead, likened the new spending to building “hardware” and described it as “necessary”. However, he went on, it was “not sufficient to generate impactful innovation on a sustainable basis. More critical is to invest in the ‘software’.”

“Countries need to develop an ecosystem of human talent who can reflect on and question knowledge gained; think out of the box and cultivate deep, profound knowledge with a long-term view rather than applying and refining existing knowledge for short-term gains,” Professor Huy said.

“HE sectors must be able to assemble a large number of professionals who can draw on diverse perspectives and enhance multi-country cooperation rather than relying on a single dominant viewpoint.”

Professor Huy said China’s investment could have a ripple effect outside its borders. “This announcement could have a significant stimulating effect on basic R&D efforts and the development of superior human capital, not just in China’s HE sector, but also in the HE sectors of many countries who have been competing with one another on R&D, thought leadership and innovation.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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