Scientific excellence + innovation cooperation = Co-creation to tackle global challenges?

Reform (mentioned 105 times) and innovation (mentioned 43 times) were, apparently, two important key words when China’s premier LI Keqiang presented the Government Work Report at the “Two Sessions”, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC).

China is rapidly increasing its spending on Research and Development (R&D), with a total amount of 1.96 trillion RMB (291.6 billion USD) in 2018, i.e. 2.18 percent of its GDP and an increase of 11.6 percent from 2017 (Ministry of Science and Technology of China). The investments in basic research is, despite the rapid increase, still at a low level, particularly in an international comparison. It reached 111.8 billion RMB in 2017, accounting for about 6 percent of the total R&D spending (compared to 18 percent in the US and around 15-20 percent in other major innovation nations).

More importantly, the enhancement of research and innovation capacity is not only a question of volume of R&D investment. But ultimately about the strategic thinking behind and the quality of investments. In this context, the ongoing reform of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the most important Chinese government funding agency for basic research, is highly interesting – and strategically important for China and for us all. Here are some facts and observations as food for thoughts.

NSFC-reform: why and how?

The NSFC-reform is motivated by a combination of emerging changes in the global knowledge and innovation landscape as well as in the role played by basic research when China is climbing up the global value chain and becoming a more strategic partner to tackle societal challenges – nationally and globally.  

Global and societal challenges call for more transdisciplinary approaches and faster integration between research and innovation. In a Chinese context, we hear more and more clear statements about what China needs in terms of specific technologies and innovations, what China can do and cannot do yet. However, what is not equally easy and clear to address, is what the key scientific questions and challenges are behind China’s technology- and innovation bottlenecks. Both these global and national needs make NSFC-reform necessary, timely and strategic.

With the new development needs and its strategic tasks in mind, NSFC has identified four different categories of its future funding:

  • Funding creative and timely ideas – excellence in science for original and disruptive innovation
  • Focusing on science frontiers in unique ways – leading cutting-edge research and innovation    
  • Supporting application- and need-driven basic research –  enabling breakthroughs
  • Encouraging cross-cutting and transdisciplinary research –  reaching common grounds     

In the field of the talent programs, the reform aims to provide more transparent, systematic and long-term mechanisms to support young scientists’ growth on their research journey over time and to better prepare them for larger projects, larger responsibility and more high-level research.

Given China’s emerging role as a global knowledge and innovation powerhouse, the NSFC-reform will have important implications for the future research and innovation cooperation between China and the world. The reform has already received support, from both the research community and the policy community.

“…the (NSFC) reform is critically important for science in China.  I will give my full support to the (NSFC) reform as a scientist.”

Qiu Yong, President of Tsinghua University

As Prof. Manfred Horvat, a leading EU research and innovation policy expert, with rich experience of China cooperation, stated in an Editorial in Science, “For the European (funding) agencies, the NSFC’s reform provided inspiration for their own future development as well as for their cooperation with the NSFC. Cooperation and exchange between funding agencies have huge potential to strengthen international science”.

NSFC’s cooperation with EU Member States on Sustainable Urbanisation  

At a more practical level, the recent cooperation between the NSFC and the Joint Programming Initiative (JPI) Urban Europe is an illustrative example of the common interests in and joint efforts to tackle global challenges through research and innovation cooperation.

Underneath the agreed strategic theme for long-term cooperation between NSFC and JPI Urban Europe, Sustainable Urbanisation in the Context of Economic Transformation and Climate Change, a  joint pilot call on Sustainable and Liveable Cities and Urban Areas was launched last year. The call generated large interests from both sides and attracted 128 joint proposals and 11 joint projects were selected for funding in December 2018, on a wide spectrum of urban challenges, such as mobility management in megacities, sustainable urban food production, innovative nature based solutions to improve ecosystem services, etc.

“China and Europe have a common interest in improving the quality of life and environmental sustainability in our cities. These projects jointly funded by NSFC and JPI Urban Europe will build bridges between Chinese and European scientists and cities so that we can join hands to address the challenges we all face and improve the quality of life for future generations…”

Fan Yingjie, Deputy Director-General of NSFC Bureau of International Cooperation

Encouragingly, we see an active Swedish participation, with 35 Swedish project partners and 8 project coordinators in those 65 eligible applications. In the final selection of 11 projects, 2 Swedish projects were recommended for funding.

This is the first time that JPI Urban Europe has organized a call with NSFC and I am proud that Swedish Energy Agency has participated in this joint initiative of nine European funding agencies and NSFC . Sustainable and Liveable Cities and Sustainable Urbanisation is a global challenge and we all benefit from transdisciplinary, cross-sectoral and transnational collaboration that reflects the complexity of global urban challenges.”

Emina Pasic, Programme manager, Swedish Energy Agency and representative for Sweden in JPI Urban Europe

Our work with NSFC and our European and Nordic colleagues

As part of our mission, the Office of Science and Innovation in Beijing is carrying out active exchange and dialogue with our NSFC-colleagues to obtain updated information and learn more about China’s policy development in the field of basic research. Given both the importance and complexity in the cooperation on sustainable urban development, the knowledge- and experience sharing with our European and Nordic colleagues in China, is both useful and valuable. Our office is chairing an Informal EU Member States S&T Counsellor Working Group on Sustainable Urbanisation (WG-SU). We learn how the EU Commission and other EU Member States work with China. We have brainstorming discussions on strategic research and innovation issues – and we build mutual trust, aligned visions and joint efforts for EU-China research and innovation cooperation together.

Nannan Lundin & Jessica Zhang