Skip to main content


One of the immediately recognisable differences between the UKRI and NSFC grant application system is NSFC’s use of disciplinary ‘application codes’ to categorise and manage incoming applications. There is a taxonomy of more than 1300 application codes used in the official 2023 NSFC Guide to Programmes, which sets out disciplinary and topic funding priorities for the coming year, and it is mandatory for any research project wishing to apply for the NSFC to select the correct application code for their application.

The application code system is interesting because it illustrates two key features of the Chinese research system, first, the widespread use of hard administrative rules to manage the application process, and second, a technocratic philosophy which underpins science policymaking across Chinese government.

A brief overview of application codes

The NSFC was founded in 1986. From an initial budget of only 80 million yuan, NSFC has seen a massive expansion with the 2022 budget exceeding 33 billion yuan. Nominally, NSFC was an arms-length body, built on the model of the USA’s NSF and Germany’s DFG. However, successive reforms, especially in 2018 and 2023, have aimed to integrate NSFC with the Ministry of Science and Technology and better channel fundamental research as a means of state modernisation and economic development.

The application codes are each a five-digit code which categorises disciplinary research topics and priorities. Previously, there were more than 3,500 different categories, before the NSFC reformed the system in 2020. The current system consists of about 1,300 codes, streamlined into a three-tier hierarchy. The initial letter represents one of NSFC’s nine Scientific Departments which administer their respective disciplines. This is followed by a combination of two double-digit numbers that specify a subject sub-area and a specific topic within that sub-area. For example, a proposal relating to semiconductor materials would likely be coded as “F0401” – “F” for the Department of Information Sciences, “04” for the subject area in Semiconductor Science and Information Devices, and finally, “01” for Semiconductor Materials.

Failure to select the correct application code for a specific research proposal will normally result in rejection of the application.

Function of hard administrative rules in Chinese research management

These kinds of ‘hard’ rules – in that failure to comply will result in rejection – perform several important functions in the Chinese research system.

For NSFC, demand management is crucial and drives a lot of it’s policy processes. As the Chinese government has increased investment to the research sector, the volume of applications has increased exponentially. In 2023, NSFC received 304,333 applications, an increase of more than 100,000 since 2019. And yet staffing within NSFC has remained relatively consistent at about 240 full time staff for at least the past decade. The application code system therefore integrates with NSFC’s application management software to efficiently sort applications and make recommendations to administrators of which peer reviewers should be selected.

This is very similar to the way UKRI’s peer review selection process operates, but an order of magnitude larger in scale, with fewer than 10% of the staff.

Other systems of demand management and guidance also exist throughout the Chinese research system. For example, application quotas are critical for managing demand, while also managing the overall concentration of resources across individuals and institutions.

One example of such quotas can be seen in NSFC’s requirements that a single academic cannot be PI of more than 2 or 3 general projects at the same time (rules vary depending on the specific scheme). These act to avoid over-concentration.

Quotas are also used to specifically encourage concentration of resources – for example, institutions that host Key Labs or other major research infrastructure may be allowed to submit multiple applications to the same call, while less prestigious institutions, or those that have little grounding in a specific discipline, may be restricted to only one application.

‘Science’ as a technocratic philosophy in China

One of the things that drew me in to research management as a career is understanding the, often unwritten, logic of funders’ strategies, policies and structures. UKRI or other funders rarely use the word ‘epistemology’, but by paying attention to how it structures funding processes, it is possible to understand the philosophy that guides the organisation. In NSFC’s case, the application codes demonstrate an epistemological view that knowledge can be clearly categorised – quite different from UKRI’s moves away from disciplinary funding panels and towards challenges and interdisciplinary decision making.

This logic of categorisation necessarily needs to be centrally decided and thus there is a corollary logic of hierarchical control and guidance of the overall science funding system. Indeed this logic reverberates across the entirety of the PRC government. It can’t be overlooked that Marxism, and especially Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, are fundamentally technocratic or even technological deterministic philosophies. Therefore science as an ideology dominates China’s political culture, and that is reflected into the microcosm of the science funding system at NSFC and MoST.

The application codes are therefore not a value-free systematisation of knowledge, but also reflect the philosophical and political logic of the state. The annual process of priority setting that leads to publication of the NSFC Guide to Programmes takes in significant advice from various academic committees, but also the opinions of policymakers to reflect and support the overall government strategy.

One important corollary of this that I think would be excellent for the UK to adopt is that, in return, Chinese policymakers are significantly more likely to seek and listen to academic advice on key issues. After all, the science and technology base determine the social superstructure, and therefore advice from the Chinese academies of Science, Social Science, Agricultural Science and many others are deeply integrated with the policy lifecycle. While this does come with significant political control of academic research, and I’m not suggesting it is a model that anyone else should adopt directly, this integration certainly seems to pay dividends when managed effectively.


NSFC’s system of application codes is interesting to international stakeholders primarily because it can inform us of the operational challenges that Chinese collaborators may be facing – overwhelming competition, tight definitions, very little room for error, and significant centralised structure over their academic careers.

However, I hope this article also provides an insight into how these structures reflect a broader philosophy of science that permeates Chinese government. It’s a small, but fascinating, example of the tight links between ideology and policy structures in the PRC.