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[BEIJING] China is to create a top-level 'leadership committee' and establish a national development plan to guide the growth of its biotechnology sector.

One of the main tasks of the new committee will be to co-ordinate research and development efforts across all government departments. At present, such efforts are split between research efforts run by the ministry of science and technology, hospitals run by the ministry of health, and universities, which are run by the ministry of education.

Xu Guanghua, the Chinese minister of science and technology, made the announcement at the 10th international symposium of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America (SCBA), being held this week in Beijing.

In China, leadership committees are powerful bodies that are only formed either in sectors of strategic importance, or at times of urgent need, such as during the SARS outbreak.

Xu said the body will be headed by "a major state council leader", who Zhang Hongxiang, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Chinese Biotechnology, predicts will be Chen Zhili, one of China's three state councillors. But Xu did not indicate when the development plan would be released, or the leadership committee formed.

"We will continue to increase our investments in basic research, developing a group of research teams and enhancing national data-sharing in the biotechnology and life science sectors,'' Xu also told the SCBA conference.

In his speech, the minister announced additional moves to boost Chinese biotechnology. These included the creation of a national biotechnology industry association, which will represent the interests of biotechnology enterprises, and the development of a biosafety law that will regulate the health and environmental impacts of technology.

Since 2001, China has greatly increased public funding for biotechnology. According to Li Yong, deputy minister of science and technology, the national biotechnology budget for the five-year period 2001-2005 is 400 per cent higher than the budget during the previous five-year plan covering 1996-2000, reaching a total of US$1.2 billion. 

But the sector still faces significant challenges. Zhou Yongchun, senior policy researcher with the Chinese Centre for Science and Technology Promotion, says that biotechnology in China is still characterised by a lack of collaboration between different institutions, poor corporate support for research on new drugs, and a lack of adequate intellectual property protection.

The fact that public funding is distributed between organisations run by three separate ministries "creates red tape and wastes resources," says Zhou. He adds that the new committee is intended to increase the co-ordination between these efforts.

But he says the committee will not be in a position to address two key problems: the lack of incentives for companies to carry out research and development in biotechnology, and the lack of demand for innovative biotech products.

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