June 30, 2008

A Richer China Investing More in R&D

China's booming economy has allowed it to increase spending on research and basic science, but it still has a way to go to catch up with the United States and other developed countries, top science officials said.

Three decades of economic reform means China can turn its attention to advanced science and expensive research, which was considered a luxury in the days when the country worried about simply feeding and clothing 1.3 billion people.

On Friday, Peking University opened the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in a Chinese-style building overlooking the Yuan Ming Yuan summer palace. The ruins of that palace, burned to the ground by Western powers in the 19th century, long symbolized China's past weakness and humiliation.

But times have changed. While the Kavli Foundation, founded by Fred Kavli, a Norwegian entrepreneur, to support research in basic sciences, contributed $3 million, the elite university kicked in at least $14 million for the building and plans to hire more than a dozen professors.

"Pure science is a human quest, and everyone must contribute," said Zhang Xian'en, director of the bureau of basic research at the Ministry of Science and Technology, at the opening. "Even though China is a developing country, because science has no boundaries we can participate, too.

"When the economy was not developed enough, there were limits to what we could do," Zhang continued. "As the economy strengthens, our scope widens."

China's spending on research and development hit a record high of 300 billion yuan, or $43 billion, last year, Zhang said.

About one-third came from the government and the remainder from corporations.

Research and development spending has risen to 1.49 percent of GDP, compared with over 2 percent of GDP for the United States.

Most of the increased spending has come in the last five years, as China has leapfrogged to become the fourth-largest economy in the world, behind the United States, Japan and Germany.

"Our spending ratio is still rather low," said Ding Li, director general of the bureau of basic sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "We spend about 5 percent of our national R&D budget on basic science, and the U.S. spends over 10 percent. Of course, I personally hope the ratio will increase."

Science investment paid off when Peking University sent hundreds of scientists and doctors to Sichuan Province to help after the earthquake in May, the school's president, Xu Zhihong, said.

"The earthquake showed that funding for science and technology should continue," Xu said.

Originally published by Reuters.

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