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Click here for part one in this series introducing China’s New National Innovation System (NNIS).


In a State Council briefing released on 9 May 2020 Li Meng, Vice-Minister of Science and Technology, stated that the State Key Lab (SKL) system was to be reorganised and that the new system would more closely align with government priorities and target specific technological breakthroughs in key areas.

This has been a challenging process over recent years, and is still ongoing, but as part of this series on China’s NNIS its worth examining the SKL system, how it is being reorganised, and what the implications may be for international partners and observers.

What are the State Key Labs?

SKLs are the highest tier of a broader class of investments called ‘research platforms’. Platforms are one of the four main funding and operational structures of the Chinese research ecosystem – the others being disciplines, grants and awards (note: I will be publishing a separate piece looking at this typology later).

SKLs, like all platforms, provide long-term public funding for a specific set of organisations, individual researchers, infrastructure and equipment in a highly focused area of science. In other research systems they would likely be described as ‘research centres’. Although in contrast to the research centre system in the UK, platforms have an incredibly detailed and diverse set of KPIs and are subject to stringent oversight.

SKLs are the highest tier of platform awards, normally granted at national level and therefore unique – SKLs cannot duplicate their topic areas with other SKLs. However, somewhat confusingly, there are many other levels of Key Labs, and other kinds of national centre or institutes, the titles for which can be very similar when translated to English.

A diagram illustrating the hierarch of China's state key labs

Receipt of any kind of key lab or platform title illustrates sustained confidence in the effectiveness and achievements of that research team. They will likely have made their way up through the ranks – first securing a municipal or provincial title, then ministerial, and finally being recognised as nationally at the forefront of their field as an SKL. While individual grants are competitive and unpredictable, the SKL provides sustained investment to support the team with research technicians, PhD scholarships, lab equipment and materials, etc. Furthermore, the awarding of key lab status will lead to substantial collaboration opportunities from other institutions and SOEs. Thus, when a team competes for key lab accreditation, alignment with government objectives and ideology is part of the assessment.

The Key Labs are not to be confused with similar organisations, such as the National Labs, Technology Innovation Bases, or Comprehensive National Science Centre. Key Labs are usually smaller and more focused, contribute directly to clearly defined scientific and technological challenge. Whereas the National Labs and Comprehensive National Science Centre are larger teams from multiple disciplinary backgrounds and a significantly wider remit.

Landscape of Key Labs in China

Key Labs are one of the most highly honoured achievements for a Chinese research team. For example, Tsinghua University hosts 18 SKLs, Zhejiang University 14, and Peking University hosts 8 SKLs. The high number of key labs highlights the leading position of these elite institutions and the concentration of resources available to them.

While the government has set a target of 700, as of 2022 there are officially 533 operational SKLs. However, official statistics are hard to come by and the last detailed report on the key lab system was published by MoST back in 2016.

Despite this, we know that SKLs account for the large majority of China’s most important scientific achievements, for example (Sun NH 2022):

  • Between 2016 and 2019, projects completed involving the participation of State Key Laboratories accounted for 67.1%, 69.4%, and 57.4% of the total awards amongst the National Natural Science Award, National Technology Invention Award, and National Science and Technology Progress Award, respectively.
  • As of 2019 SKLs were home to 47.8% and 29.7% of the academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering; 43.2% of National Distinguished Young Scholars, and 52.8% of those who received funding from the National Natural Science Foundation’s Innovative Research Groups were based in SKLs

Restructure of the SKL System

There have been several attempts to reform the SKL system. For example, the underwhelming 2017/18 reforms at MoST also included commitments to such reform, however the most recent restructure process has been significantly more radical than others.

A wave of restructure across all levels of the system has re-examined both the purpose of every single lab, their alignment to government priorities, and track record of achievements. This has directly led to the de-listing (摘牌) of many existing labs either because they had failed to deliver value, no longer aligned with government priorities, or had operational failures such as mismanagement or misuse of resources.

While at lower levels of government (such as in Ningbo where I previously led the reaccreditation of Municipal Key Labs) teams that fail the assessment are being allowed to retain their previous title, at the national level those SKLs that successfully navigate this process are being renamed from State (国家) Key Lab to Nationwide (全国) Key Lab (NKL). It’s possible that the old SKL title may linger as a legacy, but going forward it is the new NKLs are the ones that will benefit from new policies and resources.

By August 2023, there were already more than 200 Nationwide Key Labs established across China.

Goals of the Restructure

By 2022 the perception of the key lab system – and MoST itself – among central government was that the 2018 reforms had not gone far enough and that in order to meet the overriding priority of technological self-sufficiency, more needed to be done to improve the efficiency of the system and ensure that resources were effectively being targeted to meet government priorities.

Previous assessment criteria for key labs focused on their overall contribution to academic knowledge production through citation metrics. Their efforts were therefore often fragmented, and lacking direction or purpose. Producing high-quality research in a specific disciplinary area was the intrinsic goal.

In contrast, the new network of NKLs are appointed and assessed in based on their ability to tackle “specific challenges within a defined time frame. These laboratories engage in original innovation and the development of critical core technologies. Their work is time-limited, with the expectation to resolve specific issues within 10 to 15 years. Even if these laboratories perform well in evaluations, they might be discontinued or have their structure reconfigured to tackle new challenging problems.” (Sun NH 2022).

Conclusion and Implications

As I wrote in pt1 of this series, the overall goals of the NNIS is a more streamlined and efficient science ecosystem, with resources being concentrated and aligned to government objectives.

This is likely to lead to some eye-catching headlines as China marshals it’s significant resources to target clearly identified technological bottlenecks and the Key Lab system will be at the forefront of this endeavour.

However, it’s important to recognise that this process represents a significant gamble on behalf of the Chinese government, and has likely created a great deal of disgruntled senior professors along the way. The extent to which such a radical restructure of the research governance infrastructure will be successful, and its implications for longer-term, ‘blue skies’, activity remains to be seen.

For those that work with Chinese partners, or are planning to in the future, understanding the key lab system is important as it is important to know who you are working with, what resources they have access to and their level of prestige within China. The many similar names can get confusing so I hope that this explainer has helped.

It is also crucial to recognise that the restructure of the SKL system means that, going forward, teams are going to be explicitly assessed on their contribution to government priorities. They aren’t, if anyone ever was, just doing science for science’s sake. Furthermore, efforts to concentrate resources mean that high profile labs are much more likely to be working with a wide network of other institutions and enterprises, including SOEs. Understanding this network and how your collaboration supports China’s technological objectives will be critical for due diligence and risk mitigation for all institutions.

If you’d like to arrange a call to discuss how Noble Endeavours can help your team or institution, please get in touch.