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In August, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) issued a wide-ranging report on innovation in China, concluding that the country is still far from achieving the "innovation-oriented" economy that it aims to build by 2020 (See China 'not reaping benefits' of innovation spending').

The OECD found that despite a rapid growth in spending on research and development (R&D), which has increased by an average of 19 per cent a year since 1995, China has spent most of this money on developing new products, rather than creating the fundamental knowledge on which innovation depends.

The report also criticised the fragmentation in innovation policies between different government departments. Sometimes these policies are even in conflict, and they invariably adopt a 'top-down' approach; research and innovation policies, it says, are too often set "with little involvement of other stakeholders".

The OECD's main suggestions — namely that China should invest more in basic research and establish more coherent innovation policies — are both important. Indeed, many Chinese scientists have been making these suggestions for a long time.

But without a culture that encourages creative initiative among scientists at the bottom of both the research and the administrative hierarchy, as well as a more transparent system for taking decisions about the allocation of funding, the OECD's suggestions will have limited impact.

Big science vs. independent initiative

Take the situation in basic research. Although the proportion of China's science and technology budget for basic research is still relatively small compared with developed nations, the amount has been steadily growing.

Yet much of this money is spent on large projects. Some goes to support major research facilities about which Chinese scientists can boast to their US and European colleagues. Other funding goes to huge international programmes in fields such as fusion energy or human genomics.

In themselves, there is nothing wrong with such projects, which often produce important science. The problem is that they can also strengthen the strong hierarchical structure of China's scientific community, with dozens — if not hundreds — of young scientists working under the command of a single chief scientist.

Of course, given the millions of dollars and hundreds of research tasks that make up such projects, it is essential to have someone in overall control to ensure that resources are distributed efficiently and to organise the work that is needed. For such a commander, these must be the top priorities, rather than cultivating the independent initiative of young scientists.

It would also be unfair to say that the big research projects cannot cultivate young scientists. Chinese research institutes often point out with pride that such projects can stimulate and nurture young talent.

But in the hierarchical system by which 'big science' projects operate, the primary task of young scientists is to ensure that the tasks and projects allocated to them are completed effectively, rather than to develop a capacity to think independently.

The result is that they are increasingly distanced from innovation, rather than moved closer to it.

In recent years, there have been several attempts to encourage independent research initiatives by junior scientists. For example, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) has fostered such initiatives. But even the foundation is now seeking ways to put more of the money from its relatively small budget into 'big science' in an effort to produce more attention-grabbing achievements.

For example, in the 2006 budget of NSFC, more than 530 million yuan (US$70.7 million) were spent in key and major research projects — which are not freely applied — accounting for 11.9 per cent of the total funding pool or 4.46 billion yuan (US$595 million). In recent years, NSFC's funding for the key and major research projects has been growing.

Decisions from the bottom up

It is difficult to judge whether the 'top-down' approach adopted by China's scientific leaders has determined their decision to pursue large-scale projects — or whether the reverse is true. In either case, it is clear that the combination of the two reduces the possibility of independent initiative by junior scientists.

Furthermore, the top-down approach, rooted in hierarchical systems from which political and administrative leaders stand to gain the most, is more likely to ignore the interests of other stakeholders — especially of junior scientists at the lower levels — because decisions are made by a limited number of hands in the top.

As the OECD report observed, this can often lead to the conflicts between policies, as senior officials may seek to maximise their own influence (and interests) rather than trying to accommodate the interests of other officials, let alone the junior stakeholders.

A 'bottom-up' approach, in which more junior scientists are involved and decisions taken in a more open and transparent way, could reduce the conflict between different policies, since such a system would be more likely to adopt policies that benefit everyone.

More importantly, giving more consideration to the ideas of junior scientists would increase the amount of competition between different research proposals. In the long term, only the most innovative projects would be funded and the competition for research funds would itself become a means of promoting innovation.

Jia Hepeng
China co-ordinator, SciDev.Net