HKUST-THE Asia Universities Summit

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China and the US take lead roles in new age of scientific research

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 12:14pm

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Scientific research supported by government funding is necessary to open new possibilities for innovation, push the limits of human understanding by probing the mysteries of the earth and beyond and provide a clear and direct beneficial impact on daily lives and economies.

Where and how government funded support for scientific research is being spent were among the topics presented to the audience by France A Córdova, director at the US National Science Foundation (NFS) and professor Wei Yang, president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NFSC), at the Asia Universities Summit, which was jointly presented by The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Times Higher Education.

Appointed by US president Barack Obama as director of the NFS in 2014, Córdova told the summit audience that basic science is an investment in the long-term future and that some of the most revolutionary scientific discoveries have come from scientists asking fundamental questions. “Curiosity driven ideas with no immediate application have led to the development of the internet, solar panels, life-saving drugs and materials for rechargeable batteries,” said  Córdova who quoted Albert Einstein who famously said: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” She also added another Einstein quote – “You never fail until you stop trying.”  

With an annual budget of US$7.5 billion, Córdova outlined since the NFS was established in 1950, it is the only federal agency in the United States that is dedicated to the support of fundamental research and education in all scientific and engineering disciplines. The NFS provides support to produce fundamental discoveries that further the progress of research and lead to products and services that boost the economy and improve general health and well-being.  “Each year, the NSF supports more than 300,000 scientists, engineers, educators and students at universities, laboratories and field sites all over the United States and throughout the world, including US students that are currently studying at HKUST,” revealed Córdova. “From Alaska to Alabama to Africa to Antarctica, you could say the NSF’s support goes to the ends of the earth to learn more about the planet and its inhabitants.”

Córdova also explained to the audience how the NFS-initiated Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Programme stimulates technological innovation in the private sector by strengthening the role of small business concerns. The SBIR Programme focuses on increasing the commercial application of federally supported research results, and fostering and encouraging participation by socially and economically disadvantaged and women-owned small businesses. “We call it “faster discovery to delivery”,” said Córdova who also explained how the NFS Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) Programme develops long-term partnerships among industry, academe, and government.

Looking towards the future, Córdova said the NFS had identified “10 bold ideas” that would push and shape human-technology frontiers. “The research ideas are intended to stimulate cross-disciplinary activities and take on important societal challenges,” said Córdova. Topics and themes the NFS will provide funding for include understanding the rules of life, for example, predicting phenotypes from genotypes, the next quantum revolution (physics), navigating the new Arctic (including a fixed and mobile observing network) and windows on the universe through multi-messenger astrophysics.

Operating with a government budget of  RMB 24.8 billion, or roughly US$4 billion,  professor Yang told the summit audience funding allocated to the NSFC had been expanded more than 300-fold since the scientific foundation was established in 1986. Yang said an indication of the scientific research progress that China had made over the last two decades can be measured by the number of international research papers published annually, which had increased from about 40,000 articles 20 years ago to more than 300,000 last year. For example, China’s share of high-impact works (the top 0.1 per cent of papers in Scopus rated by citations) has grown, from less than 1 per cent in 1997 to about 20 per cent. China now accounts for more than 19 per cent of the world’s research community (up from just over 10 per cent in 2008) – compared with 16.7 per cent for the US.

“We have come a long way since Deng Xiaoping personally backed the setting up of the NSFC,” said Yang who has supported and worked for collaborations with universities in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore and elsewhere. “About 70 per cent of our funding is allocated to universities for research, including the C9 League, a group of China’s elite research universities, with the remainder allocated to hospitals and various institutions to support their research,” said Yang.

He added a number of major R&D projects had been selected to promote high-tech industry development and traditional industry upgrading; resolve bottlenecks on economic development and improve public health. “The foundation’s mission is to be a ‘FRIEND’ of scientists: fair in reviews; rewarding in fostering research; international in global participation; efficient in management; numerous in grants; and diversified in disciplinary coverage,” said Yang.

Highlighting China’s global vision, Yang said the NSFC had continued to open wider to the outside world. By the end of 2015, the NSFC has signed cooperation agreements or memorandums of understanding with 85 foreign counterparts or science funding agencies from 40 countries and regions. “Chinese scientists work with the US and European scientists in many areas of basic science for the well-being of all humankind,” said Yang.

Despite a slowdown in China’s economic growth, Yang told the audience that China’s research activities had grown dramatically and the government had made it clear it will continue to support scientific research. In its 2006 “Medium- to Long-term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology” (MLP), the Chinese government declared its intention to transform China into “an innovative society” by 2020 and a world leader in science and technology by 2050. Yang said examples of the breadth and depth China’s commitment to research included the 500-metre aperture spherical telescope (FAST) the world’s largest single aperture radio telescope, located in China's southwest; the deep underground Earth-physics laboratory near Jinping, Sichuan; and the subterranean experiment, at Daya Bay in the south of China, where scientists are studying neutrinos – some of the oddest particles in the cosmos. “We have a way to go, but these projects are part of the China transition from an economic powerhouse to a technological powerhouse and then to a scientific and cultural powerhouse,” noted Yang.