China will restructure its top science and technology supervisory body as the country pushes for technology breakthroughs and self-reliance.
The shake-up of the Ministry of Science and Technology — the second since 2018 — is part of a massive government revamp approved at this year’s national legislative meetings. The overhaul includes the creation of a new financial watchdog and a national data regulator.
Changes to be made with the sci-tech ministry include sparing it from evaluating and managing specific research projects, divesting some of its divisions and transferring related responsibilities to other government departments, and installing a central science and technology commission to oversee and coordinate science-related policymaking.
The restructured ministry will play a bigger role in mobilizing resources to achieve technological breakthroughs, optimizing sci-tech innovation, facilitating application, and coordinating science and technology with economic and social development, according to the State Council’s overhaul plan.
China faces growing challenges to access advanced technologies in developed countries amid growing competition with the U.S. Washington has been pressing allies to join its actions to restrict high-tech exports to China, choking a growing list of Chinese companies.
China’s State Councilor Xiao Jie told lawmakers that China needs to further smooth its leadership and management system for work related to science and technology in the face of international sci-tech competition and external containment and suppression.
“The importance of technology innovation is growing with state input and social expectations, and the management of technology development is getting more challenging while global competition heats up,” said Xue Lan, dean of Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “The reshuffle indicates the desire to address the challenges through reform.”
A highlight of the overhaul is to reposition the ministry to resume its role as a policymaker and rule-making entity while reducing its participation as a player, said Li Xia, director of the School of History and Culture of Science of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
The restructuring will reallocate resources among the ministry and other departments and lead to changes in the massive funds managed by the ministry, Li said.
For years, the sci-tech ministry has played multiple roles, from technology policy-setting to macro planning and management of research funding. The ministry oversaw the allocation of 45,3 billion yuan ($6.59 billion) for research and development in 2020, the largest amount among the 40 central government departments responsible for R&D funding management. Its affiliate the National Natural Science Foundation managed an additional 31.6 billion yuan. Altogether, the sci-tech ministry has a say on more than 50% of China’s government R&D funds.
The mixed role of a policymaker and research fund manager has long been a complaint about the sci-tech ministry. In 2004, three famous scientists — Yao Yi, Lu Bai, and Zou Chenglu — jointly penned an article calling for the separation of the ministry’s policymaking and fund-management roles.
The restructuring will reduce the massive amount of funding in the ministry’s portfolio, said Li at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
A main element of the overhaul will be to divest several specific responsibilities and related funding management authority from the sci-tech ministry and transfer them to other departments, including the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the National Health Commission and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
The State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, a unit set up in the sci-tech ministry in 2018 to oversee the importation of foreign talent, will be transferred to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, according to the plan.
The sci-tech ministry will no longer take part in the evaluation and management of specific research projects, Xiao said during the legislative meeting. The ministry will mainly play the role of guiding and supervising the management of professional organizations responsible for scientific research, overseeing the implementation of scientific research projects, and evaluating the results, Xiao said.
The ministry currently has four affiliated organizations engaged in the daily operation, fund management, and assessment of research projects. Under the restructuring plan, the organizations will be spun off and transferred to other departments.
Experts praised the reorganization, stating that it will improve the management of scientific projects. But some said the overhaul doesn’t go far enough. According to Li, the National Science and Technology Major Project, which involves tens of billions of yuan in funding, will remain in the ministry. “The biggest part of money remains untouched,” Li said.
The revamp of the ministry is also seen as a key step for China to strengthen a state-led campaign to seek technology breakthroughs and push forward the application of new technologies.
According to the reshuffle plan, a Central Science and Technology Commission will be established in the ministry, a move to strengthen the Communist Party’s leadership in scientific and technological innovation and enhance the top-level policy design capabilities, experts said.
There have long been difficulties in the coordination of scientific and technological work, as tasks are scattered across many departments within the State Council, and the sci-tech ministry had limited power to coordinate work with other ministries at the same level, said Sun Yutao, a professor at the School of Economics and Management at the Dalian University of Technology, who has long studied China’s research funding policies.
“The situation will change after the establishment of the Central Science and Technology Commission,” Sun said.
Although the reform is meant to simplify the ministry, the emphasis on scientific and technical growth has gotten greater, Sun added. The Central Science and Technology Commission is positioned high enough to coordinate various departments.
As an entity directly under the Communist Party’s Central Committee, the commission will have greater authority in forming scientific and technology policies, and the sci-tech ministry will become the commission’s executive body, Xue said.