Nation’s largest science body will be reshuffled amid government concerns over lack of research breakthroughs

Amid widespread calls to reform China’s science system, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the nation’s largest research body, is to reshuffle its 100 plus research institutes and change the way it rewards scientists. The details of the ambitious plan, though, are far from clear.

In August, the CAS announced the launch of a new round of reform, aimed at becoming a worldwide science and technology (S&T) leader by 2030. At this conference the CAS president Bai Chunli said that CAS institutes are presently very flat, covering a huge range of fields without specialising. ‘The situation must be changed,’ he said.  


The central message of the reform, which was clarified in a document released by the CAS in late September, is to reorganise all 104 CAS research institutes into four classes: centres of excellence focused on basic research, advanced institutes doing applied research and commercialisation, big science centres running huge facilities and institutes that will address problems specific to a region of China. Existing institutes will either be transformed to one of these four types or disbanded.

Another key plank of the plan is to increase the salaries of scientists conducting basic research, so that they no longer rely on grants as their principal source of income. According to Bai, the desire to harvest grants to increase personal incomes has led to the fragmentation of scientists’ research.

This situation is not unique to scientists working for the CAS. Despite a rapid increase in research spending, which has seen China become the world’s second largest spender on science and technology (S&T), Chinese scientists and professors are poorly paid in comparison with their counterparts in western countries. This has resulted in a rush for grants and a surge in publications to justify their receiving them. ‘The numbers of publications and patent applications filed, rather than their quality, have become the sole criterion to judge S&T outputs,’ says Fengchao Liu, a professor of technology management at Dalian University of Technology, China.

The surging number of papers has not led to enough innovation, apparently dissatisfying the pragmatic Chinese leadership, explains Liang Zheng of the China Institute for S&T Policy at Tsinghua University.

With an R&D budget of Yuan43.7 billion (£4.43 billion) in 2013 – more than the Yuan29.2 billion research budget managed by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) – the CAS is facing enormous pressure from the highest levels of government over its failure to produce enough breakthroughs that are changing the world. The CAS’s reform plan comes just one month after China’s president, Xi Jinping, inspected the academy in July.


To date, there is little indication which CAS institutes will be reclassified and which are for the chop. Some CAS institutes with a clear goal to support technology development, such as the Shanghai Institute of Advanced Research and Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, might fall into the second applied research category. While some of the science projects like the synchrotron and protein science sites in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, could form the new large research centres.

Other CAS reform goals are to institutionalise international peer review for basic research and increase the number of foreign scientists that it employs from 1% to 6% by 2030.

‘Generally speaking, it is a move in the right direction to improve scientists’ basic salaries, but the move has to consider other Chinese science institutions to avoid massive talent flow out of Chinese universities,’ says Cong Cao, a China science policy expert at the University of Nottingham, UK.

But Cao questions whether it will be possible to revitalise the CAS merely by reshuffling its institutes. The previous CAS president, Lu Yongxiang, launched massive reforms in the mid-1990s to implement the knowledge innovation project. During that reform, dozens of CAS institutes were disbanded or transformed into high-tech firms.

‘The key question is is CAS a combination of multiple missions ranging from basic research, military technological development and commercialised R&D to policy think tank and higher education?’ Cao ask. ‘The potentially conflicting missions and goals make it very hard to drive CAS to implement a universal reform plan.’

Chemistry continues to dominate Chinese publications

The latest report on Chinese science and technology outputs reveals that Chinese scientists first authored 204,000 papers indexed in Science Citation Index (SCI). This makes China the second biggest producer of scientific papers – a title it first took in 2009.

The figures from the Institute for S&T Information of China (ISTIC) show that the number of papers published by Chinese researchers has grown 23.9% on last year. However, per paper citations between 2004 and 2014, despite a year-on-year growth rate of 9.4% to 7.57, remain below the world’s average of 11.05 citations per paper.

With 37,310 SCI-indexed papers, chemistry remains the top Chinese scientific discipline. Material science accounts for 16,348 SCI papers from China and is ranked fourth. Chinese chemistry papers account for 20% of the world’s total SCI output in this field.

The CAS Institute of Chemistry based in Beijing and CAS Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry are the top two Chinese public research institutes in terms of citations in 2013, while among Chinese universities, which are ranked differently from public institutes, Zhejiang University surpassed Tsinghua to become top on citations.