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[BEIJING] China has launched a new initiative to encourage the sharing of scientific information and high-tech research facilities.

The initiative, which will cost 500 million yuan (US$60 million) in its first year, also involves the creation of new research facilities, part of a bid to increase the number of patents taken out by Chinese scientists.

The move was announced last week by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China's science ministry, and other departments. It comes in response to criticism from Chinese researchers that much scientific equipment is outdated, and that those high-tech facilities that the country does have are not used to their full capacity.

As part of the new initiative, China will build a group of research laboratories to promote co-operative scientific projects involving Chinese and foreign scientists. Other research institutes throughout China that conduct government-approved scientific projects will be able to use research equipment as well as other resource material from laboratories built under the initiative.

External researchers will have to pay 'sharing fees' to use these resources. But institutes are required to keep their fees low, and are not allowed to make profits from hiring out their equipment.

Liu Yanhua, vice-minister of science and technology, told a press conference last week that the initiative would help make better use of previously scattered research resources, and would also help avoid duplication in research.

He said that "relatively backward" research conditions and insufficient funding had hindered China's progress in basic research and restricted the number of patents that it had obtained. Currently, most research programmes use imported equipment, Liu said, and money has been squandered through unnecessary purchases of laboratory equipment.

He pointed out, for example, that the whole US scientific community shares 16 moderate-resolution imaging spectroradiometer receivers (equipment for receiving data from remote sensing satellite). In contrast, China already has 17 such devices, and has already ordered another 80, a typical waste of resources, he said.

Poor research conditions and the lack of funding are major factors leading to the large gap in scientific development between China and developed countries, says Hu Qiheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a member of a 23-person consultation group set up to oversee the efficient operation of the initiative.

"The initiative is a 'gospel' for China's scientific development, because it will help create a favourable research climate for scientists,'' he says.