SOURCE / ECONOMY
Will 8% be enough for China to be technologically independent, close gap with US?
Rise in fundamental research funding requires 'long-term investment mechanism'
Published: Mar 09, 2021 09:03 PM
Robots dancing at the first China-ASEAN Artificial Intelligence Summit held in Nanning, capital of South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Saturday. More than 100 firms displayed cutting-edge intelligent technology and appliances for people's daily lives in the 5G era, and attendees could have a try. Photo: VCG

Robots dancing at the first China-ASEAN Artificial Intelligence Summit held in Nanning, capital of South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. More than 100 firms displayed cutting-edge intelligent technology and appliances for people's daily lives in the 5G era, and attendees could have a try. Photo: VCG



China's pledge to raise fundamental research funding to 8 percent of total research and development (R&D) spending during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25) will be a much-needed shot in the arm for the country's technology industry, and it shows Beijing's determination to achieve self-reliance in stranglehold sectors amid a spiraling technology war with Washington.

But is 8 percent enough to narrow the gap and even catch up with developed economies like the US, whose fundamental research funding represents about 15 percent of R&D spending? 

Industry observers and frontline researchers hold different views. Some point to acute issues in China's fundamental research, such as the absence of long-term input, a lack of incentives for experts to stay in the field, and the limited role of private enterprises. 

Minister of Science and Technology Wang Zhigang said on Monday that fundamental research spending during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25) will be raised from 6 percent during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) period. 

China will also formulate a 10-year action plan on fundamental research, to scientifically optimize top-level design and system so that fundamental research findings can be deployed and advanced in a systematic manner, according to Wang. 

A Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) start-up told the Global Times on Tuesday that the company and other domestic technology enterprises have been inspired by the signal China sent during the two sessions, which could pave way for a long-term, fundamental research investment plan.

"Scaling up fundamental research funding is necessary amid the brewing technology war between the world's two largest economies, as China is now choked by some Western countries in certain sectors including lithography machines and algorithm tools," an AI specialist in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province, told the Global Times on condition of anonymity.

"There may be some huge fundamental research spending in the first few years of a research institution's existence, but it usually vanishes gradually as it doesn't yield immediate results or profits," he said.

According to media reports, the US' fundamental research funding as a percentage of total R&D spending is estimated at 15 percent. The ratio for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development economies is around 15-20 percent.

The AI expert stressed that a rise of just two percentage points in fundamental research funding could translate into billions of yuan in spending, as China's economy is expected to expand continuously in the next five years. 

Wang Peng, an associate professor at the Gaoling School of Artificial Intelligence at the Renmin University of China, who is also a frontline research staffer, told the Global Times on Tuesday that compared with the US - where fundamental research is jointly led by the government and enterprises - China's fundamental research is mostly driven by the government, which means that theoretical findings don't result in commercial products.

"The level of support should not only extend to research institutes but also private enterprises," Wang said. He also suggested a bridge should be built between institutes and enterprises to facilitate commercialization of research findings.

The AI start-up said that it is investing heavily in fundamental research, with a focus on how innovative technology could be integrated with the real economy and fostering top-level research teams. 

"More and more technology companies are beefing up investment in the underlying framework for algorithms, which bodes well for building up China's technological fundamental infrastructure," the AI start-up said, noting that it looks forward a more open environment for such projects in China. 

There is also a severe brain drain in China's fundamental research field, according to the Shenzhen AI expert.

"It's not easy to develop an effective incentive system for talent. Salaries for young researchers are not competitive with other market-oriented jobs, and they are hardly rewarded during the R&D process," he noted.

China should learn from developed economies on the use of R&D funds, Wang said.

"We spend a lot of time on projects' financial compliance, which cuts into actual time for research. It would be much more efficient if we could apply for funds in advance and have greater autonomy in how we allocate them," Wang said.

According to Minister Wang, China made achievements in fields including iron-based superconductors, stem cells, quantum information and neural computing chips during the 13th Five-Year Plan period.

"If a long-term mechanism is set up, things will gradually improve. In a decade or so, we will be able to see its effects in China's technological progress," Wang Peng said. 


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