Published online 1 September 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.515

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Chinese science ministry increases funding

Annual round of research grants is up 50%, but scientists say the cash is still spread too thinly.

moneyThe budget for China's National Major Scientific Research Program has grown quickly over the past five years.kevin connors/shutterstock

This week, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) unveiled a list of 64 research projects to be funded under the sixth round of its annual National Major Scientific Research Program.

MOST plans to invest a total of US$244 million on the projects over the next five years — an increase of more than 50% on last year's $160 million. The projects cover six topics: protein research, quantum technology, nanotechnology, research into developmental and reproductive biology[, stem cells and Earth science.

"Our goal through this programme is to encourage original research and innovation," says Fu Xiaofeng, who heads the MOST office in charge of the programme. "We'd like to establish China among the world's top three competitors in these areas."

Fu says that the six categories were chosen on the basis of China's national needs as well as its scientific potentials. The first four were outlined in 2006, in the national guidelines on the medium- and long-term plan for science and technology, issued by the central government and covering the period up to 2020. The other two categories, stem cells and Earth science research, were announced in 2010.

Stretched resources

Although the programme has expanded rapidly, Chinese scientists say that the funding is spread too thinly among individual research groups.

"As meaningful as this programme is for basic research, it's really not that much money when shared between four collaborating research teams and over five years," says Liu Mingyao, a stem-cell biologist at East China Normal University in Shanghai and head of one of the 64 projects. Liu's lab will get around $150,000 a year from the programme, about one-third of its estimated annual budget. "As a result, we depend on various other funding programmes to stay afloat," he says.

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Shi Yufang, a stem-cell researcher who heads the Institute of Health Sciences in Shanghai, says that the same is true of many major funding programmes in China, including those from MOST and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. To get enough funding, he says, scientists waste a large amount of time writing reports and trying to work out detailed budget plans instead of doing research.

"In comparison, although it's harder to get funding in the United States nowadays, the system there is much more efficient," says Shi, who also holds a post at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Piscataway. "Evaluation is a lot easier in the United States, and there isn't as much back-and-forth," he adds.

MOST runs two large-scale funding projects in addition to the National Major Scientific Research Program: the National Basic Research Program and the National High-Tech R&D Program. In 2009, the latest year for which figures are available for all of them, the total budget for the three programmes was $1.3 billion. 

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