Skip to main content


English translations of Chinese grants, titles and awards are a maze of similar words that can cause a lot of confusion – ‘key grant’, ‘major grant’, ‘key discipline’, ‘key lab’, ‘award’, and others – all have specific meanings that don’t necessarily map on to familiar UK typologies.

In this article I’ll explain the four main categories, I think of them as ‘pillars’, of the Chinese funding system. Understanding these categories will help you to recognise the strengths of your Chinese collaborators and you’ll be better informed about the system as a whole.

Not only will this improve your ability to communicate with Chinese colleagues, but from a due diligence perspective, it is crucial to be able to understand whether the accreditations of a potential partner are genuinely of national importance, or if they are lower status achievements with a similar name.

A minor caveat is that I’ve not seen a Chinese-authored analysis of the system that looks at it in this way. They probably exist, but this article is based primarily on my own experience. When I was Director of Research for the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, this was how I structured the research administration team – and how other Chinese institutions that I know of structure their admin teams – so it is widely accepted as an effective way to categorise and manage the system.

The Four Pillars

A diagram outlining the key features of each of the four pillars

It is important to recognise that each of these pillars will be administered by a variety of agencies, at a variety of scales and that recipients may include both individuals or teams based at either universities, academy institutes, or enterprises. For a larger and more strategic investment, the teams will include multiple organisations.

A core principle of most of these pillars is that they will internally have a hierarchy of progression through the levels of government administration. The applicant, be that an individual, team or organisation, will need to demonstrate a track record of success at municipal or provincial levels before being able to progress on to the national levels and more significant funding within any specific pillar.

Each of the pillars plays a different role in the Chinese funding system. I have organised these from left to right as primarily infrastructure investments through more ordinary grants and finally retrospective awards for research achievements.

These might also reflect the overall research lifecycle for an individual researcher where they:

  1. Join an institution and contribute to the overall research environment (Discipline)
  2. Work as part of a wider laboratory team in a clearly defined topic (Lab)
  3. Receive their own individual grants for projects (Grant)
  4. Are later recognised for the contribution and impact of their work (Award)

This is a simplification – but it shows how the funding administered through the different pillars are mutually supportive and play specific roles in the overall system.

Subcategories of Scale and Role

This typology could therefore be more differentiated so that an specific investment, project or funding, can be subcategorised by its role and scale in the system as a whole.

A table outlining key features of the four pillars

Our hypothetical new researcher may therefore:

  • be part of an academic school or department recognised as a Provincial Key Discipline;
  • belong to a team accredited as a Municipal Key Lab;
  • hold an individual fellowship and be a co-investigator on one or more General Programme grants (at both Provincial and National levels); and,
  • with luck and several years’ dedicated work, they may aspire to securing a 1st or 2nd class Provincial Science and Technology Award

It’s worth noting that Grants (*) and Fellowships are the most varied of the four pillars. They are administered by each level of government independently (i.e. general, key, major scales at each of the Municipal, Provincial, National levels), and often the scale of funding doesn’t necessarily correlate with the status of the investment, i.e. municipal grants frequently have significantly more funding than national ones but are less respected (and also generally more applied research).

Further, national Fellowships (**), such as the NSFC Outstanding Young Scientist scheme hold significant status beyond the positioning on this table. Similarly prizes from influential academic societies (**) may hold more status than suggested – it’s a bit too complex to describe every specific example in one article.

If you’d like more information about Key Labs then please see the article here – as things progress I’ll publish more deep dives on each of the other pillars.


When making strategic decisions about future partnerships, it’s important to be able to understand the markers of esteem that an institution may hold and therefore be able to make informed choices to develop sustainable partnerships.

Hopefully this short introduction has helped you separate your key disciplines from your key programmes and will make it easier to talk to current or future Chinese partners – understanding the system that they operate within, and the accolades that they have secured for themselves and their partners.

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