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Welcome to the monthly round-up of key trends in Chinese research news that I’ve spotted during September with a few thoughts from me about each topic.

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MoST Restructure Gathers Pace

The biggest story in the research space continues to be the implementation of major changes at MoST.

For context, MoST previously acted as both a funder and policy maker – effectively a combination of DSIT and UKRI, sharing responsibility for the science funding with NSFC for more basic research while leading on the larger scale and more applied research, and especially national strategic priorities.

This year however, a major restructure to create a new National Innovation System framework, has restructured most of the funding responsibilities away from MoST, leaving it both more influential in the sci-tech ecosystem, but with fewer operational responsibilities.

All this is worthy of a more detailed explainer that will come later, but the key stories of the month I noticed are this speech by Minister Wang Zhigang outlining the priorities for the reform at MoST. What struck me about it is that, while the language is different, overall, this could just as easily be a speech by a UK minister – better strategy and planning; better use of existing resources; targeted investment in key areas; improved systems and processes; international collaboration – these are all very familiar.

Implementation of those priorities will of course vary wildly as a story about training of young MoST staff shows. While I’m sure the event also featured more operational training, the readout focuses directly on implementing Xi Jingping Thought and the ongoing ideological campaign within the Ministry. Reinforcing views that the restructure at MoST has come with a significant increase scrutiny and – potentially – a view from the leadership that it has not effectively delivered its priorities in the past.

Notably this month also saw a revision to the CAS Academician Code of Conduct that aims to bring the occasionally ‘freewheeling’ (i.e. corrupt) senior professorship more into line.

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Prioritisation of Young Scientists

It’s a good time to be a ‘young’ academic in China right now.

NSFC has introduced an interesting new scheme to provide talented undergraduate students with more research experience and support them through the early stages of their career. The successful students get more opportunities to participate in conferences, dedicated workshops with senior scientists and the chance to join ongoing research projects.

The programme was piloted incredibly fast with one academic quoted as saying it was rolled out as a pilot initiative in less than 3 months over the summer and reports that the full programme will launch shortly with no quotas on the number of students it will support. Personally, I can’t help but think that this places even more pressure on already overloaded students at a critical time in their lives, but as I’m not a scientist the scheme wouldn’t be applicable to me anyway.

This scheme comes along at the same time as the MoE also announced a big change postdoctoral research funding. The post-doctoral career stage is more structured in China than in the UK. An institution may apply to host specific ‘Post-Doctoral Training Stations’, these are approved in areas of research strength and directly funded based on performance. Post-docs receive funding and certificates on completion of their work at such a station, making them more prestigious than working outside of that system. The changes aim to make it easier for post-docs to access funding and streamline the system.

Finally on this topic – the first ever Shuangqing (双清) Youth Forum was held on the topic of “Future Development of Integrated Circuits”. The Shuangqing Forum is an incredibly prestigious brand sponsored by NSFC, usually reserved for senior professors in key areas of national strategic importance. As Professor Chen Yunji, executive chairman of the forum, said in his speech “the party and the state attach great importance to basic research, the development of young people, and integrated circuits.” This alignment means the event is vitally important and will likely be marked as one of the key drivers for any future breakthroughs in Chinese chip technology.

For those feeling left out in all the talk of ‘young scientists’ – you may be pleased to know that this usually means somewhere between 35-45 years old, depending on the exact programme and with women usually given an additional 5 years to account for maternity leave.

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Expanding ‘Developing World’ Partnerships

The Newton Fund may be dead, but NSFC seems keen to replace it.

NSFC has long supported many partnerships with other ‘developing world’ funders and scientific agencies, including multilateral organisations and funding. But reading this latest call for Cooperative Research Projects between NSFC and the BRICS Science, Technology and Innovation Framework felt like déjà vu to my Newton Fund days. This structure of deliberation and funding looks identical to the ones I frequently negotiated, and I wonder how much of NSFC’s experience partnering with us has shaped it’s thinking in the design of this programme.

Especially given the meeting this month between NSFC President Professor Dou Xiankang and Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, President of the Academy of Sciences for Developing Countries (TWAS), I expect to see a lot more leadership from NSFC in this ‘research for development’ space.

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UK higher education delegation

Finally, it didn’t get any media release but observant folk noted the important delegation of UK universities to China this month. It’s a critical moment for the sector to reinitiate some of those partnerships and conversations that have been largely dormant since 2019. Once upon a time I would have been organising much of an event like this and I hope it went well for everyone involved.