Sci-tech serves nation's strategic needs
Updated: January 3, 2023 09:01 China Daily

Fostering quality scientific talent, employing innovation to serve the country's strategic needs and achieving major milestones in research capacities were last year's highlights for China's science and technology sector.

Science and technology underpinned many of the nation's biggest achievements, including hosting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, finding new engines for socioeconomic growth and completing construction of the Tiangong Space Station.

Last year, the country climbed one place to 11th out of 132 economies on the Global Innovation Ranking 2022, published by the World Intellectual Property Organization. China was the only middle-income economy to make it into the top 20.

The country topped nine indicators out of the roughly 80 criteria used by the list to measure innovation capacity, including: domestic market size; the number of companies offering formal training; patients by origin; growth of labor productivity; trademarks by origin; industrial designs by origin; and exports of creative goods.

For the first time, China had as many top 100 science and technology clusters as the United States, with 21 apiece, according to WIPO.

Meanwhile, Shenzhen-Hong Kong-Guangzhou was the world's second-most innovative sci-tech cluster, with Beijing in third place.

Speaking via a video address to the publication ceremony of the Global Innovation Ranking 2022 in September, Wang Zhigang, minister of science and technology, said that over the past decade, China's science and technology sector has seen historic and profound changes. "China has been a key participant in global frontier science, technology and innovation, as well as a key contributor to jointly solving global challenges," he said.

He added that China will facilitate opening-up and international cooperation, actively integrate into the global innovation network and foster bigger and deeper collaboration in science and technology.

In an article published last month, Hou Jianguo, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that a country's research capability in basic sciences is the foundation for supporting innovation and the basis of China's pursuit of self-strengthening and self-sufficiency in science and technology.

The academy will help optimize policies to support scientific research and regulations on cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology, he said, noting that it will also build a more effective innovation mechanism, nurture world-class scientists and promote open sciences and international cooperation.

Research output

One of China's biggest scientific milestones last year was that it overtook the US for the first time as the world leader in both the quantity and quality of scientific papers published from 2018 to 2020, according to an annual report published in August by Japan's National Institute of Science and Technology Policy.

China's massive talent pool, growing research budget and sustained social and political support for research undertakings were the sources of the achievement, the report noted.

The statistics were based on yearly averages from 2018 to 2020 compiled by Clarivate, a global analyst. According to the report, Chinese research accounted for 27.2 percent — or 4,744 — of the world's top 1 percent of highly cited papers in those years. The US accounted for 24.9 percent — 4,330 papers — followed by the United Kingdom with 5.5 percent and 963 papers.

It was the first time that China had surpassed the US in this prestigious category, the report noted.

The highly cited papers were studies that outperformed 99 percent of their peers based on the number of citations received, which is a commonly used measurement of a study's quality and influence.

"China is one of the top countries in terms of both the quantity and quality of scientific papers," Shinichi Kuroki, a researcher with the Japan Science and Technology Agency, told Nikkei Asia.

"In order to become the true global leader, it will need to continue producing internationally recognized research."

Materials science, chemistry, engineering and mathematics were China's most prolific scientific fields, while US researchers were more active in clinical medicines, basic life sciences and physics, the report said.

The report's findings were consistent with a March study published by the journal Scientometrics, in which scientists found that China had overtaken the US in 2019 in the number of the top 1 percent of most-cited papers.

Caroline Wagner, the study's co-author, said the papers are seen as the cutting-edge of science. "The US has tended to rank China's work as lower quality. This appears to have changed," she noted.

Notable benefits

From creating salt-resistant varieties of soybean to giant metal bearings for tunnel-boring machines, Chinese scientists and engineers have strengthened their efforts to use their research to fulfill the country's strategic needs, resulting in massive economic and social benefits.

Testimony to this trend is the rapid growth of national high-tech development zones, which are the trailblazers of China's innovation-driven development strategy as they host 84 percent of the nation's State Key Laboratories and 78 percent of its national technological innovation centers, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Last year, China had 173 national high-tech development zones, 84 more than in 2012. Meanwhile, the GDP of high-tech development zones grew from 5.4 trillion yuan in 2012 to 15.3 trillion yuan ($2 trillion) last year.

These zones contributed to 13.4 percent of China's GDP last year, while using just 2.5 percent of the nation's construction land, according to the ministry.

Wu Jiaxi, deputy director of the Department of Research Commercialization and Regional Innovation at the ministry, said the high-tech zones have proved to be resilient to risks and have achieved growth despite global uncertainties in recent years.

Li Youping, deputy director of the ministry's Torch High Technology Industry Development Center, said scientists and companies from the high-tech zones have made numerous breakthroughs in strategic fields in recent years.

Those feats included China's first artificial intelligence chip, the first quantum communications satellite, the first vaccines for COVID-19, high-speed rails, the C919 passenger jet and the Beidou satellite navigation system, he added.

Speaking at a forum in November, Zhang Yuzhuo, then vice-president of the China Association for Science and Technology, said the scientific community has been a major contributor to the healthy and inclusive development of the nation's digital economy, which refers to the use of information and communication technologies to support business models and economic activities.

Last year, the value of China's digital economy reached 45.5 trillion yuan, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the nation's GDP, Zhang said.

Meng Xiangfei, chief scientist at the Department of Application and Research at the National Supercomputing Center of Tianjin, said that in the past decade, he and his team have been dedicated to the development of the Tianhe series of Chinese supercomputers.

Tianhe-1, launched in October 2010, has become a valuable instrument that is capable of handling more than 1,400 computing tasks simultaneously, and about 1,000 research groups use the supercomputer every day, he said.

Meng and his colleagues are building the prototype of the nation's exascale supercomputer, Tianhe-3, which will handle more than 1 quintillion operations per second, making it many orders of magnitude more powerful than Tianhe-1.

"I always tell my teammates that every effort we put in will benefit the country in the end," Meng said.

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