WASHINGTON-China is moving ahead with its reform of science and technology by weaning re search institutes from state support, rewarding scientists who develop commercial products, and encouraging proposals for basic re search from individual investigators.
Wu Mingyu, vice minister in the State Science and Technology Commission, discussed these and other developments during a recent 10-day visit to the United States. Wu led a six-man delegation that gathered information on the relationship between the law and scientific and technological developments.
Chinese scientific advances traditionally have been closely regulated by the state, Wu said. This tight control has stymied efforts to apply science and technology to improve conditions for the average citizen. A new policy was adopted in 1982, he said, and since then the government has supported an increasing number of programs that use science and technology to build the Chinese economy.
The goal of most of the reforms is to increase the amount and quality of applied research. One element of that campaign is financial incentives to individual scientists who make possible the transfer of technology from the research lab to the general economy.
"In the past it was free," said Wu about that process. "Now our scientists will share in the benefits of research to the well-being of the society." Wu said that the institute will receive credit for the achievement and the individual scientist will receive a raise of roughly 15 percent.
Wu said the value of the technology that the various institutes and university facilities have produced has risen sharply since the incentive plan was adopted, from about 80 million yuan ($22 million) in 1984 to 700 million yuan ($190 million) last year.
On Their Own
A second important change is the attempt to shift support for the country's roughly 2,000 research institutes from the state to other parts of society. Song Jian, chairman of the state science commission, noted during a visit last year to the United States that these facilities "pursue sophisticated technologies but are unable to translate these into social wealth."
Wu said that 360 institutes-almost one-fifth of the total-no longer accept state funds. They support their work through cooperative agreements with industry and other sectors of the economy. "We hope all of the institutes will achieve this status within five to seven years," he added.
A third major component of the reforms is greater cooperation between China and the rest of the world in technological projects. Such joint equity agreements with the United States, for example, amount to roughly $1 billion this year. The bulk of those agreements cover energy projects, many of them related to offshore exploration for oil.
Despite the widespread reforms, the state has retained responsibility for economic planning and for research on such social issues as health, the environment and labor relations. And it has strengthened its role in supporting basic re search.
Earlier this year the government announced that proposals would be accepted from individual scientists in the first round of funding by a newly created national science foundation. Modeled after the National Science Foundation here, the Chinese version has a staff of 150 and a budget of 100 million yuan (about $27 million).
Wu said the Chinese foundation received 10,000 proposals in response to its announcement and that officials are still reviewing them. A process of peer review is being used, he added.
"The creation of a foundation is a very important step for China," said Pierre Perrolle, a program director at the National Science Foundation who this month assumed the position of counselor for science and technology in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. "It's a recognition of the notion of competitive funding by individual scientists." Perrolle said the Chinese have been "very open-minded" about what they will fund and have said that institutional affiliation will not be a factor in the selection process.
Wu also discussed efforts to improve the lot of young scientists and to give them a greater role in shaping the course of research. He said that 50 postdoctoral stations have been established for students who are returning from study abroad. These students traditionally have returned to the institute at which they received their initial training, but Wu said the government will encourage many of them to enter industrial settings.
Younger scientists are being moved into positions of authority, he said. The average institute director is between 30 and 40 years old, he added, about 15 years younger than the average age in the 1970s. Their salaries are increasing, he said, although "a large gap" still exists between the salaries of Chinese scientists and those in other countries.