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Welcome to the Noble Endeavours monthly round up of Chinese research policy news for January 2024.

If you’d like to discuss how my knowledge of China can support your institution to develop informed strategy for secure sustainable partnerships, please get in touch.


1. EU and Canada Push further on Research Security

The most notable development outside of China itself this month has been publication of new approaches to research security from both Canada and the EU. What is particularly interesting is that they have taken quite different approaches – largely because of the Canadian system being substantially smaller than the EU and therefore easier to grapple.

Canada’s approach has been called “the most detailed security procedures yet made public in the West” and has identified a list of 11 “sensitive technology areas” and a list of 103 “Named Research Organisations”. No new projects will be funded that work on sensitive research with a named organisation.

As national security is a country capability, the EU has needed to take a more indirect approach, but one that could potentially become broader and more effective. The new guidelines aren’t even regulations and will still need to be signed off by all Member States, however much like the UK’s Trusted Research, the guidelines emphasise institutional capacity and responsibility. Creating a new central advisory team, and setting out recommended checks and processes for individuals, institutions, and governments.

While Canada’s approach is certainly clear, it requires policymakers to continually monitor and update the two lists and introduces new central workloads to audit the approved projects. The EU’s approach will mean that not a lot changes very fast, but could potentially lead to a more embedded long term culture of risk awareness and due diligence.

The biggest challenge now facing universities in these, and other countries is that, while many states are taking steps to manage research security, their divergence in approach may create further challenges. Potentially creating barriers to collaboration between various Western blocks due to incompatible rules.

2. New Research Integrity Rules

Meanwhile in China, this month has seen a continued focus on issues of research integrity. Notably we have seen:

  • A major meeting at MoST to reflect on – and hammer home – the messages from the third Plenum of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The CCDI is chaired by Xi Jinping and drives the anti-corruption campaign that has been his signature policy. While such a study meeting is not unusual, the fact that MoST was investigated and restructured last year and the high-level focus on sci-tech achievements makes the meeting especially pointed.
  • Two new set of rules were published, one on ‘academic integrity’ and another on the use of generative AI in academia. From my perspective, the more rules banning the use of generative AI (in academia, and elsewhere) the better so it is good to see these, although I doubt they will be effective. On the other hand, the rules on academic integrity are troubling. While the general idea of institutions and teams taking shared responsibility for integrity is intrinsically welcome, in practice this feels like it will make it even harder individuals that are not aligned with government priorities and ideology.

More generally the current focus on integrity is fascinating. Research integrity is intrinsically good – it is wrong to cheat and steal. However, I do not believe that is the logic driving the central government’s energy and attention on this topic. Instead, it is the extrinsic problem that is motivating this various initiatives. Doing research with low integrity – faking results, colluding in citation metrics or funding, using poor methods or lacking technical skill and rigour, etc., – leads to bad research outcomes.

At a time when the government is desperate to make progress in key technological bottlenecks, it can ill-afford to waste time and resources a castle built on sand.

3. NSFC ‘original projects’ & IP Register

Thirdly this month, two more minor stories that I found interesting.

NSFC has introduced a (long overdue) “Original Projects” channel for applications aiming to allow more innovation and creativity in its grant portfolio. The background to this warrants a longer article but suffice to say that competitiveness of NSFC’s General Program means that projects not closely aligned with existing priorities are unlikely to be funded. This, and other issues, leads to successful projects tending to be more incremental; they are safe bets. While it is still valuable work, it is not the kind of work that is going to win any Nobel Prizes or discover the foundational technology for the 6th industrial revolution. The new channel aims to change that, but given how it has been implemented, I seriously doubt it will be effective.

NSFC, MoST, and four other departments have jointly created a new monitoring mechanism to link patent applications with research grants. All new patent applications much list which grant funding was received to support the new patent. Further, the State Intellectual Property Office will evaluate the quality of patent applications and those evaluations will feedback into future grant and even promotion assessments. Partly this aims to help policymakers to track the return on investment from grant funding – a notoriously thorny problem – while also aiming to reduce salami slicing and the morass of low-to-no value patents that floods China’s IPO every year. The risk is that a renewed focus on patents – already a key part of the promotion criteria for Chinese academics – will draw them away from blue skies research that is unlikely to produce immediate outcomes, reinforcing a shorter-term mindset to research project selection.

And Finally

Closing this month was this fun story about the proposed use of quantum encryption for e-commerce transactions. I’m sure there’s more to it than this, but it just absolutely tickles me that one of the first major use-cases for the next evolution of computing might be making Ebay transactions more secure.


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