Another Bumper Year for Chinese Science

Another year, another chance for scientists here to pop the champagne corks. In a draft budget released today at the opening session of the annual National People’s Congress, China has earmarked 32.45 billion yuan ($5.14 billion) for basic research in 2012—up 26% from last year’s appropriation

Overall, central government spending on science and technology is slated to rise 12.4%, to 228.54 billion yuan ($36.23 billion). Scientists will also benefit from a 24% jump in funding for Project 985 and Project 211, which funnel money to elite universities.

In a 2-hour speech at the Congress, comparable to the U.S. State of the Union address, Premier Wen Jiabao dwelled primarily on China’s economic health. Many economists expect growth to slow in China this year, and the central government has set humbler goals. Wen announced that the target for GDP growth in 2012 would be lowered from 8% to 7.5%. Chinese scientists are expected to do their part to fan the embers. Echoing a theme of last year’s speech, Wen pledged to “more closely integrate science and technology with the economy.”

The cash infusion for basic research will be divided among the National Natural Science Foundation of China, scores of “key” state laboratories, and select institutes. The exact distribution of funds is expected to become clear later this month, after the Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), together called Liang Hui, conclude.

With land reform at the top of the political agenda this year, agricultural research got a call out in Wen’s speech. A whopping 53% boost in spending on agricultural S&T will mean 10.1 billion yuan ($1.60 billion) for such targets as high-yield crops, controlling animal-borne epidemics, and improving drought management. More delicately, the premier nodded at China’s recent food safety scandals, pledging that the government would strengthen oversight of the food and drug industries.

Wen acknowledged mounting criticism of China’s development model, saying, “We will show the world with our actions that China will never seek economic growth at the expense of its ecological environment and public health.” The statement drew a rare round of applause from delegates. They will spend the next 10 days mulling proposals, including a CPPCC one that calls for distributing research grants more equitably. If that proposal succeeds, it could really sweeten the pot for Chinese scientists.

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