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Chinese leaders create science mega-ministry

Government overhaul prompts fears that funding will drop for basic research.

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China's new conservation ministry will oversee protection of endangered species, including the Przewalski gazelle.Xi Zhinong/Minden Pictures/Getty

Chinese leaders released plans last week to expand the powers of the country’s science and technology ministry (MOST). The beefed-up agency will continue to oversee science policy and major projects, but will take on extra responsibilities for funding research grants and for recruiting foreign scientists. Politicians say that the reforms will streamline government procedures, but some science-policy experts warn that the changes could weaken support for basic research.

The announcement came at the annual assembly of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, where the government revealed that more than 15 ministries and agencies will be merged, restructured or abolished. The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the major grant-funding agency, will no longer sit under the powerful State Council, but will be managed by the science ministry.

Other agency changes include expanding the body that oversees the intellectual-property office, creating a new ministry of ecological environment to monitor pollution and enforce environmental-protection laws, and forming a new conservation agency to help protect endangered species, such as the Przewalski’s gazelle (Procapra przewalskii).

Surprise move

For researchers, the plans to expand the science ministry will have the biggest impact — and the shake-up took many Chinese scientists by surprise, including some in the ministry. The NSFC doles out modest competitive grants led by individual investigators.

In 2016, its budget of 26.8 billion yuan (US$3.9 billion) accounted for nearly one-third of the country’s basic-research funding, supporting 44,000 research projects.

The science ministry, by contrast, manages large projects that are aligned with national goals. Scientists often criticize the ministry for supporting projects on the basis of political and personal connections, rather than on expert advice. “Placing NSFC under MOST is likely to complicate these missions,” says Cao Cong, a science-policy researcher at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China. Cao, who met with science-ministry colleagues last week, says many didn’t seem to know about the reshuffling. “The reorganization was kept in the dark until the last minute,” he says.

Cao says that the reshuffle could be a sign that the Chinese leadership was unhappy with the progress of the country’s last major reorganization of science, in 2014, which attempted to streamline competitive funding.

The repercussions of the latest reforms will take time to unfold, Cao says. But one scenario is that the NSFC gradually loses control and influence over basic-research funding, says Cao. “If so, the entire scientific community will be unhappy,” he says. NSFC grants are highly regarded among scientists because they are peer-reviewed and place less emphasis on scientists’ personal connections, known as guanxi. They’re also one of the only sources of funding for new PhD students.

Many prominent Chinese researchers say that China’s basic-research spending is already too low compared with other nations that invest heavily in science. In 2017, the country spent 92 billion yuan on basic research, which represents 0.1% of it’s gross domestic product (GDP). The United States invests 0.2% of its GDP in basic science.

The NSFC’s new head, Li Jinghai, who took over the agency’s reins last month, told Nature that details about the integration of MOST and NSFC “need to be discussed and figured out in the coming months”. But he said the State Council had promised more money for basic science in a document released in January. "I am sure that basic science in China will be further strengthened," he says.

Wang Yifang, director of the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing and a member of the National People’s Congress, has high hopes for the merger. He has been an outspoken critic of China’s process for selecting major science projects, saying that peer reviewers sometimes don’t have expertise in the areas they are examining. Wang wants China to adopt a system more like that in the United States, where a small group of experts assesses the quality of projects. Wang says that could happen in the merged agency “if MOST and NSFC both behave correctly”.

Environment boost

Conservationists welcomed plans to create new environmental ministries. They say the revamped structure should reduce conflicts between ministries that have similar areas of responsibility. For instance, under the current structure, the country’s vast grasslands are managed by the agriculture ministry, whereas the wildlife on the grasslands is the responsibility of the State Forestry Administration. As a result, in Qinghai province in central China, the forestry administration has tried to remove fences in grasslands to link up isolated Przewalski’s gazelle populations at the same time as the agriculture ministry has funded the construction of new fences. “It’s one ecosystem. [It] needs to be addressed as a whole,” says Zhang Li, a conservation biologist at Beijing Normal University.

Zhang says that a lack of coordination between agencies has also meant that China’s endangered-species list has not been updated for ten years. For instance, the current list designates the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) — a scaly mammal — and the Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) as vulnerable to extinction. But the panoglin population has plummeted in the past decade because of illegal hunting for traditional Chinese medicine. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now list Chinese pangolin as critically endangered. Zhang says that protections for the porpoises, also critically endangered on the IUCN list, should also be strengthened because the population has dropped to just 1,200.

Zhang expects that the new natural-resources ministry will update the country’s endangered species list in the near future.

Nature 555, 425-426 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-03246-w
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