30.04.2018 - Natural Sciences Sector

Brain research has become a policy focus for China

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On 22 March, an agreement was signed establishing the Chinese Institute for Brain Science, Beijing, the journal Nature reports. Once completed, the new institute will serve as a core facility for the country’s planned project to study the human brain. Here, Professor Cong Cao, a scholar of innovation studies at the Faculty of Business within the University of Nottingham Ningbo China and author of the chapter on China in the UNESCO Science Report (2015), explains why this announcement may signal a major policy shift in China.

With the Chinese Institute for Brain Science, Beijing, China joins a small circle of countries investing heavily in this field. Since 2013, the world’s three superpowers for scientific research and development – the USA, European Union and Japan – have all launched ambitious projects in human brain research. Together, they account for 57% of global research spending and 83% of Triadic patents*, according to the UNESCO Science Report (2015). In 2013, the European Union (EU) selected the Human Brain Project to be one of its two Future and Emerging Technologies initiatives, along with the Graphene project. Together, these two projects account for 3.5% of the almost 80 billion euro budget of Horizon 2020, the EU’s research programme for 2014–2020.

In 2013, the USA launched its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro­technologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Japan followed suit, a year later, with its own Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies (Brain MINDS) project. The latter is studying the brain of a primate, the marmoset, in order to improve understanding of human disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

In China, brain research is one of the six mega-science and -engineering programmes to 2030 identified by the 13th Five-Year Plan for the National Economy and Social Development (2016–2020). The other five are aero-engines and gas turbines; a deep sea ‘space station’; quantum communication and quantum computing; the nation's cyberspace security; and deep space exploration and a space vehicle in-orbit service and maintenance system.

A significant investment in basic research

The launch of the Chinese Institute for Brain Science, Beijing may represent a significant departure from the current policy focus on applied research and development. China devoted 5.1% of total research spending to basic research in 2015, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. This is up from 4.8%, on average, over the past decade, but less than in 2004 (6.0%). The prolonged policy focus on experimental development has resulted in enterprises contributing three-quarters of Chinese research spending (77% of total expenditure on R&D in 2015). Experimental development accounted for as much as 97% of total research expenditure in the business enterprise sector by 2015.

In its Medium and Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology (2006–2020), China fixed itself the target of devoting 2.5% of GDP to research and development by 2020. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics reports that domestic research spending stood at 2.07% of GDP in 2015 and that the figures for the years 2013 and 2014 had been revised slightly downward since the UNESCO Science Report was published.

In 2013, the sprawling Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) came under ‘enormous pressure from the political leadership to produce visible achievements’, recalls the UNESCO Science Report. This led the President of CAS to launch the Pioneering Action Initiative as a way of embracing ‘the international frontier of science and major national demands’. Existing institutes were organized into four categories: centres of excellence focused on basic science; centres of big science built around large-scale facilities to promote domestic and international collaboration; innovation academies targeting areas with underdeveloped commercial potential and; institutes fostering local development and sustainability.

In parallel, the government launched a sweeping reform of government research funding. National research programmes were reorganized into five categories. One of these covers basic research, funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China through small-scale competitive grants. A second category has been created for special programmes designed to develop human resources and infrastructure. The other three categories cater to mega-science and -engineering programmes, technological innovation and high-tech projects.

The new brain institute will not be part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Rather, it will collaborate with the academy, along with Beijing’s other leading biomedical institutions, including Tsinghua University, Peking University and the Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

The new institute will probably receive funding both from the National Natural Science Foundation and from the mega-science programmes. In March this year, the government announced plans to place the National Natural Science Foundation under the Ministry of Science and Technology but the implications of this latest reorganization of science are unclear, as the two agencies have different missions in support of basic research.

What is certain is that China’s political and scientific leadership has come to realize that the country’s pursuit of innovation could be in jeopardy without breakthroughs in basic research.

Plugging the gaps in technology

The ongoing reforms are intended to increase China’s chances of becoming an innovation-oriented, modern nation by 2020. This goal has been compromised by the continuing dependence of most Chinese enterprises on ‘foreign sources for core technologies’, affirms the UNESCO Science Report. In 2015, the government launched its Made in China 2025 initiative to prioritize the development of cutting-edge high-tech industries.

According to the UNESCO Science Report, the political leadership is dissatisfied with the performance of the national innovation system, considering there to be a mismatch between input and output. Over the years, the government has invested massively in research funding, quality training and sophisticated equipment. The number of research personnel has tripled since 2004 to 3.6 million and China overtook the USA in 2011 for the number of full-time equivalent researchers.

‘Major gaps in technology and equipment have been filled by China in recent years’ recalls the report, ‘especially in information and communication technologies, energy, environmental protection, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology and other strategic emerging industries for China’.

Over the past quarter-century, China has established major research facilities in the physical sciences which are also providing opportunities for international collaboration. These include the Beijing Electron-Positron Collider (est. 1991), Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility (est. 2009) and Daya Bay neutrino oscillation facility. The Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment, for example, began collecting data in 2011. The experiment is being led by Chinese and American scientists, with participants from the Russian Federation and other countries.

Leaps and bounds in medical sciences

China’s traditional strengths lie in materials science, chemistry and physics but the country has made leaps and bounds in medical sciences in the past decade. ‘Publications in this field more than tripled between 2008 and 2014 from 8 700 to 29 295’, affirms the UNESCO Science Report, citing data from the Web of Science. ‘This progression has been much faster than in […] materials science, chemistry and physics’. The report cites data from the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Science and Technology. ‘China contributed about one-quarter of all articles published in materials science and chemistry and 17% of those published in physics between 2004 and 2014 but just 8.7% of those in molecular biology and genetics’, it says. ‘This nevertheless represents a steep rise from just 1.4% of the world share of publications in molecular biology and genetics over 1999–2003’.

The report explains that, ‘in the early 1950s, Chinese research in genetics came to a standstill after the country officially adopted Lysenkoism, a doctrine developed by Russian peasant plant-breeder Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898−1976) which had already stalled genetic research in the Soviet Union. Essentially, Lysenkoism dictated that we are what we learn. This environmentalism denied the role played by genetic inheritance in evolution. Although Lysenkoism was discarded in the late 1950s, it has taken Chinese geneticists decades to catch up’.

China’s participation in the Human Genome Project at the turn of the century was a turning point. This global collaborative project was made possible by cloud computing and supercomputing, as well as the handling of big data. In 2009, China released its fastest supercomputer, Tianhe-1, making China only the second country after the USA to develop a supercomputer on such a scale, according to the Xinhua press agency, cited by the UNESCO Science Report 2010.

*Triadic patents are filed by the same applicant or inventor at the European Patent Office, United States Patent and Trademark Office and Japan Patent Office for the same invention.

Source: Cong, Cao (2015) China. In: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030. UNESCO Paris; Cyranoski, David (2018) Beijing launches pioneering brain-science centre. Nature, 5 April; Cyranoski, David (2018) Chinese leaders create science mega-ministry. Nature, 20 March.

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