China: An emerging scientific giant?

11 March 2011  •  Many of the material goods we buy today include the message “Made in China.” Will we be saying the same thing about scientific breakthroughs and technological innovation in a few years? Quite possibly.

I was fortunate to be appointed to the first-ever International Evaluation Committee (IEC) of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and participated in a site visit there in December 2010. The review process and the visit were eye-openers in many ways. Our committee, chaired by chemist Richard Zare (Stanford University), was very broad scientifically.

The IEC review process, to be completed in 2011, was established to coincide with the NSFC’s 25th anniversary. The review and the process could become an important model for possible future reviews of Chinese institutions. The main goal of the review was to provide NSFC with an overall independent assessment of its management and impacts during the past 25 years and to provide advice for improving its performance in the future. I was impressed by the fact that this review was happening at all, as well as the thoughtful process, the extensive materials prepared for us, and the openness of the people with whom we talked. Our committee was told that the NSFC is the first government organization in China to be selected for an independent international peer review. Thus, the review assumes an importance beyond the NSFC itself.


Members of the International Evaluation Committee at the National Natural Science Foundation of China
Members of the International Evaluation Committee at the National Natural Science Foundation of China on 16 December 2010. [Larger version of photo.] Left to right:
Ma Zhiming
(China, mathematics, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
Erik Arnold
(U.K., science and technology evaluation; president, Technopolis Group)
Tony Cheetham
((U.K., materials science; University of Cambridge)
Jeannette Wing
(U.S., information science; Carnegie Mellon University)
Andrew Smith (Australia, agrobiology; University of Adelaide)
Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker (Germany, biochemisty; director general, Human Frontier Science Program)
Dick Zare (U.S., chemistry; Stanford University)
Han Qide (China, medical science; Peking University, vice chair of the People’s Congress)
Akito Arima (Japan, nuclear physics; chairman, Japan Science Foundation)
Xu Zhihong (China, life sciences; former president, Peking University)
Rick Anthes (U.S., atmospheric sciences; president, UCAR)
Xue Lan (China, science and technology policy and management; dean, School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University)
Lu Yonglong (China, environmental science; Chinese Academy of Sciences).

Because our committee has not yet finalized our report, the comments I make here are entirely my own and are based not only on the materials presented by the NSFC for our review, but also on almost 30 years of experience visiting atmospheric science organizations and university departments in China.

Richard Anthes on the Zhongnanhai (Chinese White House) campus in Beijing
Richard Anthes at the Ziguangge (Hall of Purple Lights) on the Zhongnanhai (Chinese White House) campus in Beijing, prior to the formal start of the NSFC review on 15 December 2010.

A transformation in progress

When I first visited in 1982, China was just emerging from the Cultural Revolution, and the state of science and technology was grim. There was a large community of atmospheric scientists in government and academia, addressing both research and operations, but it lagged far behind counterparts in Europe, the United States, and the rest of the developed world. Computers and weather and climate modeling were particularly far behind, and my Chinese friends struggled to use early versions of the Penn State/NCAR mesoscale model (eventually MM5), which I brought to them with each visit. There were no Chinese weather satellites.

Today, as a result of a deliberate and focused government strategy to improve China’s global competitiveness and standard of living, the situation is vastly different. Evidence of progress is everywhere. In 1949 there were about 30 research institutions and 600 people engaged full time in scientific research. By 2009 there were 51 million people in China engaged in S&T, the largest number of any country in the world. China now has the world’s fastest supercomputer (Tianhe-1A, which has attained a speed of 2.57 petaflops) as well as the third fastest. The nation has also launched 10 weather satellites, with another 18 or so to be launched by 2020.

Students from Shanghai recently posted the highest scores in the respected Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which involved 28 million 15-year-old students from 74 countries. When compared to students from entire nations, those from Shanghai easily took first place in reading, science, and mathematics, while U.S. students came in 17th overall, 31st in math, and 23rd iin science. The Web of Science/Essential Science Indicators shows China in 4th place internationally (behind the United States, Germany, and England) in terms of number of papers and 7th place in number of citations. However, the citations-per-paper index of 6.84 is 18th out of the 20 countries with the most number of papers or the most number of citations. This implies that China’s publication record to date is more impressive in its quantity than its international impact.

Chinese scientists are developing their own weather and climate models, often in collaboration with U.S. scientists. For example, the China Meteorological Administration, in collaboration with NCAR, is developing the GRAPES (Global/Regional Assimilation and PrEdiction System) model, a modern non-hydrostatic nested modeling system for global and regional weather prediction.

The advances in Chinese science since 1949 have been impressive, but the path has not been smooth. The Cultural Revolution, started by chairman Mao Zedong in 1966 and lasting for a decade, had a devastating effect on Chinese art, education, science, and intellectual activities in general. After Mao’s death in 1976, chairman Deng Xiaoping realized that education, science, and technology were the foundation for a healthy, prosperous society. Under Deng’s leadership, science began to recover, aided by significant investments by the Chinese government.

From personal experiences and many discussions with colleagues both from within and outside China, my impression is that the country is now very strong in scientific and technical competence and skills. It is also is showing great productivity, and the quality of its research is generally excellent. However, China is somewhat weaker in creativity and innovation, and the need to improve in the latter category has been widely recognized, including by the Chinese themselves (see below).  

Looking ahead: S&T’s strategic role for China

China’s impressive progress over the last few years has been shaped by a 2006 strategic planning document, The Guidelines on National Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development (2006–2020) (Word document). It lays out the Chinese vision with clarity and inspiration and provides a picture of how the nation’s research might evolve during the 2010s. The plan’s vision statement for the role of S&T in China’s future includes these passages:

As the premier productive forces, science and technology are a concentrated reflection and a major hallmark of advanced productivity. In the 21st century, the new science and technology revolution is rapidly unfolding and gestating significant new breakthroughs. . . .

We need to depend even more heavily on S&T progress and innovation in order to achieve substantial gains in productivity and advance the overall economic and social development in a coordinated and sustainable manner.

The plan presents four guiding principles: indigenous innovation, leapfrogging in priority fields, enabling development, and leading the future in frontier technologies and basic research. Earth system science is one of the plan’s eight “frontier scientific issues.” Within this category, the priorities in Earth system science—including some that will be familiar to UCAR members and affiliates and others that are more nationally focused—are as follows:

  • global climate change and its impact on China
  • the large-scale hydrological cycle and its impact on regional water resources
  • interactions between human activities and monsoon systems
  • sea-land-air interactions and Asian monsoon systems
  • the carbon cycle process in China’s ecosystems
  • the environmental response of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to climate change
  • climate system modeling and prediction
  • greenhouse effects on climate
  • the genesis and evolution of aerosols and their impact on climate

Overall, the plan emphasizes the importance of a scientifically literate public, and one of its major policy goals is to implement a nationwide scientific literacy action plan. It also recognizes the importance of human resources, with a section on workforce development and management that advocates “a teamwork spirit of pragmatism, innovation, collaboration, and indifference to fame and wealth.” And the plan offers this caution:

Despite the size of economy, our country is not yet an economic power primarily because of our weak innovative capacity. . . . We must place the strengthening of indigenous innovative capability at the core of economic restructuring, growth model change, and national competitiveness enhancement.

Given the dedication of a rapidly growing China to education, science, and technology, and the remarkable advancements in these areas over the past 30 years, I have no doubt that China will become a world leader—perhaps the world leader—in science and technology. In addition to consumer goods, “Made in China” could become shorthand for intellectual achievements and scientific and technological innovation. The United States and other developed nations should take note.

More on the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC)

The NSFC was founded in 1986 as a basic research-funding organization that would complement the more applied or directed research being carried out by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other institutions, including industry. Over its history the NSFC has supported more than 2,000 institutions and one million researchers.

The NSFC was designed in many ways following the model of the National Science Foundation NSF) in the United States, but the U.S. model was adapted to fit within the context of China.

A key aspect of the formation of the NSFC was to depend on a competitive peer-review process with the priority of funding being based on quality and excellence of proposals rather than institutional funding. In addition, the NSFC pays a great deal of attention to avoiding conflicts of interest and scientific misconduct. The foundation is organized into eight main departments based on scientific discipline:

  • mathematics and physical sciences
  • chemical sciences
  • life sciences
  • Earth sciences
  • engineering and materials sciences
  • information sciences
  • management sciences
  • health sciences

The Department of Earth Sciences consists of five divisions: geography (including soil sciences and remote sensing), geology and geochemistry, geophysics and space physics, marine science, and atmospheric sciences.

There are a number of types of funding mechanisms. In addition to the general (core) program, which funds proposals in the eight departments, there are special programs that promote priority science areas in China, development of young scholars, science in less developed regions of the country, and international scientific collaboration and exchange. Proposals are accepted in any of these categories.

A major difference between the NSFC and NSF processes is that, whereas NSF accepts proposals throughout the year, the NSFC accepts proposals only once a year, with a deadline of 31 March. Naturally this creates a huge bulge in the workload of NSFC staff over the following months. In the past year (2010) the number of proposals received and processed in each department has varied between 8,000 and 30,000, with the number of proposals per NSFC staff person varying between about 500 and 1,700. Each proposal includes a mail review by at least three independent experts followed by a panel review. The success rate of proposals has averaged about 18% over the past five years.

Funding at NSFC has been growing rapidly, from 0.11 billion Yuan (about $17 million USD) in 1986 to 8.3 billion Yuan (about $1.3 billion USD) in 2010. The agency’s budget is scheduled to continue growing at approximately 20% per year for at least the next few years.


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The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.