China: science goes to the marketplace

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

CHINA'S 700-page white paper on scientific research, presented at the recent National Science and Technology Conference in Beijing, calls for the commercialisation of research results, according primacy to marketable advancements. It is a pertinent effort, in tune with the ongoing technological revolution in the world and the upgrading of outdated institutions.

The government has pledged to treble the funding for research and development, from the current level of 0.5 per cent of the country's gnp to 1.5 per cent by the year 2000. On a scale of 10, basic research now has an allocation of 0.7, applied research has 4, and developmental research, 5.3. By ad 2000, the outlay on basic research will be 1, compared to 3 for applied and 6 for developmental initiatives in science and technology. This apportionment of resources is a follow-up of the 1978 decisions of the Chinese Communist Party's central committee, to modernise science and technology facilities, industry, agriculture and the armed forces. Science and technology was given top priority, as it was deemed the principle productive force and the cutting edge of national power.

The thrust on science and technology began in 1980, when inadequacy of funds surfaced as a major problem. The Chinese government asked the research institutions to raise their own funds to ease the resource crunch. They were asked to sell their products in the industrial market. This became a fruitful endeavour. Against this backdrop, the resolve set out in the new white paper, to turn most of the country's research laboratories into business units aimed at economic growth, appears to be an attainable objective.

Basic research will be concentrated in the hands of a group of elite scientists. The others will be required to merge their research efforts with the requirements of business and industry, or turn their operations into financially independent businesses, providing scientific and technological services.

In China, the emphasis has always been on the application of innovations and production, rather than on basic sciences. The Chinese Government's new document on commercialisation of the advancements in science and technology is an additional impetus to focus on developments that are commercially tenable.

The policy statements by President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Li Peng, declaring science and technology as the "number one productive force" that must be further liberated and developed for economic growth, is another step forward for the nation's strategy of implementing practical applications. The steady conversion of research laboratories into business enterprises has been on since 1981, when the emphasis shifted to applied research so that more practical solutions were found for industry.

As yet, only about 10 per cent of the research outcomes are transformed into industrial applications. But now, research in China will take on a definitive market oriented approach. Setting out of the new priorities, and the indication that science and technology will have the continued commitment of the leadership, would be reassuring for the intellectuals and the scientific community, who have endured persecutions and hardships for being critical of policy foul-ups during Mao's regime, between 1949 and 1974.

Mao Zedong had been particularly protective about the missiles and nuclear programme. A large number of scientific establishments had been linked to military projects. Now, the leading establishments, like the ones working on the space programme, have been opened up, to yield spin-offs for civilian benefit.

China's major foray for productionising research results will be launched from 1996, when its 9th five year plan begins. The period up to the mid-21st century has been identified by the country's leadership as crucial for the rapid technological advancements to push forward economic and social development. It will bring revolutionary changes in the modes of production and lifestyles.

In terms of comparative assessment it means that India's big neighbour is going to pursue policies meant to catalyse the use and application of science and technology for the production of goods and wealth, notwithstanding the whimperings of the 120 institutes under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, whose assistance from the government has been declining. With sustenance coming from banks and industry, there has been no significant decline in its overall funding levels.

The new developments hold some lessons for India. Visiting Chinese scholars and members of the various delegations have always been keen to gain familiarity with the structure, organisation and the mode of financing in those production processes where India was clearly competitive. It must, therefore, act as an awakening for our policymakers, that if India has to compete in the world markets in the present scenario, science and technology will have to take on a sharper edge.

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