China eyes the development of pure science

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"To have the applications of a science, the science itself must exist."

This argument was made by American physicist Henry Augustus Rowland when delivering a speech, titled A Plea for Pure Science, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on August 15, 1883.

Pure science, also known as basic science or basic research, aims to improve scientific theories in order to better understand and predict natural phenomena and the processes by which natural resources are transformed. Mathematics, physics and chemistry are all forms of this research approach.

In the speech, Rowland called on Americans not to rely on the foundation of pure science built in Europe over the preceding centuries, but to explore the whole universe and make their own contributions to knowledge and understanding. He hoped that the U.S. would be able to "lead the world in the strife for intellectual prizes" as they did in their struggle for wealth. Nearly 140 years later, the U.S. is a global leader in basic science, exceeding Europe in both the amount of achievements and the revenues from their commercial use.

Yu Yushu, an associate professor at the School of Mechatronical Engineering, Beijing Institute of Technology, echoed Rowland. "Basic research gives rise to the system of science and technology," he told Beijing Review, adding that its development and breakthroughs can push ahead technological, economic and social development.

Increasing emphasis 

"Robotic solutions have been widely used in manufacturing, service and other sectors," Yu said. "However, their evolution is inseparable from the development of basic disciplines."

Basically, a robotic system involves dynamics and mathematics. In recent years, scientists have applied artificial intelligence to give robots the ability of autonomous learning, and artificial intelligence itself has become a cross-discipline subject covering computer science, mathematics and biology, Yu explained.

Zhang Yansheng, principal researcher with the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, told Beijing Review that China's eradication of absolute poverty in late 2020 marked its entry to a new stage of development. "China should now be paying more attention to science and technology, basic research in particular," Zhang said. It is a major source of momentum for long-term economic development.

Zhong Zhangdui, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, agrees. He told China Youth Daily recently that, in the past, China was a poor country and so the main concern was to feed and clothe its population; whereas in the current state of development the emphasis needs to shift to promoting basic research.

In a 2019 article, Wang Yifang, Director of the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), said the development of pure science brought about the rise of Europe and the U.S. and that pure science, in turn, has become part of their cultures.

A country with a strong economy will be better able to explore the universe, according to Wang. He believes now is a great time for China to contribute its share to the global development of pure science.

China's investment in basic research, from both the government and enterprises, increased from 71.6 billion yuan ($11.2 billion) in 2015 to 133.56 billion yuan ($20.9 billion) in 2019, with an average annual growth rate of 16.9 percent, much higher than that of the overall spending on research and development (R&D), according to the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). Last year, funding hit 169.6 billion yuan ($26.84 billion) nationwide, MOST data showed.

China has put a 10-year action plan on boosting basic research into practice since 2021, and pledged to elevate the share of related spending in its total R&D expenditures to a record 8 percent from approximately 6 percent during said period.

This year's government work report, adopted at the annual session of the National People's Congress, the highest state organ of power, in March, underlined the importance of pressing ahead with the plan to ensure stable support over the long term.

Challenging problems 

Funding increases for basic science in recent years have significantly contributed to the rising number of papers published by Chinese researchers in top-tier international academic journals, according to Yu. However, a gap still remains between China and advanced countries in basic science and other sciences.

Currently, R&D expenditures account for about 2.5 percent of China's GDP, which is comparable to global standards. However, when it comes to the proportion of basic research funding in overall R&D investment, the country lags far behind the U.S., Japan and some European countries, whose spending exceeds 15 percent, Wang said in February.

"We still have room to grow when it comes to basic research funding," Yu echoed.

Ye Yujiang, a MOST official, said last year that in addition to greater government allocations, enterprises and the private sector are also expected to increase their investment in basic science projects.

Both Zhang and Yu separately told Beijing Review that it's difficult to rely on enterprises for the development of basic science because it often takes a long time to commercialize the results and see sufficient profits.

Nevertheless, enterprises should be encouraged to engage in basic science to contribute to the country's development as part of fulfilling their corporate responsibility, Zhang added.

The scientific community is also calling for the equal allocation of R&D funding to different forms of basic science. Qian Wei, Director of the Institute of Microbiology at the CAS, said the study of bacteriophages (phages) has been stagnant for 30 years. However, it is the exploration of bacteria's anti-phage mechanisms that resulted in invaluable tools such as gene editing techniques, a cutting-edge technology with great potential. "We shouldn't only focus on the popular or glamorous fields," Qian said.

Compared with graduates of some popular disciplines, their peers of basic disciplines are more likely to face difficulties in employment, and their income might be lower, according to Du Xiaobo, a material chemistry major at Beihang University. "This is why many students prefer applied or engineering sciences—for the sake of career prospects," Du told Beijing Review, adding it would be difficult to secure a job after graduation if he studied pure chemistry.

"Also, it is hard to achieve good results doing short-term basic research," Du said. Timely results, however, are often an important factor influencing future funding.

Fund providers usually evaluate researchers and their output based on efficiency and results, with performance determining whether funding will be renewed. "People need to understand that basic research is a long-term process that requires high input to achieve solid output," Yu concluded. "We should reform the outdated system for evaluating basic research projects so that researchers can focus on their work, without having to worry about their budgets and income."

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