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Talent plan to unleash creativity

BEIJING, Dec.12 (Xinhuanet) -- China's drive to cultivate world-class scientists, the Ten-Thousand Talents Program, is being seen by observers as an effort to pave the way for a Nobel Prize.

The 10-year program pledges to bulldoze through tedious red tape in order to offer more liberal and flexible funding to the nation's brightest minds, according to the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

The goal, it said, is to foster more than 10,000 Chinese talents, including 100 world-class scientists, whom Xinhua News Agency and the People's Daily described as "competitive candidates for a Nobel Prize".

But insiders have raised questions over whether the ambitious campaign will tackle the root cause of problems holding back innovation and fundamental science in China.

The first batch of 277 talents were identified in late October.

In an e-mail to China Daily, the organization department said the "top 100 pre-eminent talents" will be given funding to set up their own research laboratories and act as chief scientists.

Funding requests will be discussed "case by case and decided based on individual needs" to support exploratory and original research, the e-mail read.

Liu Zhongfan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who specializes in carbon materials, was selected as one of the first batch of pre-eminent talents, along with five others.

He said the program is a chance to reform research funding in China, which affects tens of thousands scientists.

"State funding now requires quick returns, and most researchers are expected to publish a pile of papers — the quality of which is often questionable — as well as cope with various reviews and checks," he said.

"The program will choose 100 talents in 10 years and give ample financial support. That will encourage teams such as mine to set lofty ambitions."

Unlike the current situation, successful candidates will be able to identify and pursue research of their choice, rather than be confined to fields dictated by the people holding the purse strings.

Scientists in China can now dedicate only 30 percent of their working time to research due to the need to socialize with funding organizers and submit academic papers, and the higher administrative positions they hold the less time they have, according to a China Youth Daily report in 2010 that cited a poll by the China Association for Science and Technology.

Jean-Marie Andre, emeritus professor at the University of Namur and a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, compared the Ten-Thousand Talents Program with the IBM fellowship that started in 1962.

The computer giant gave candidates a chance to identify and pursue their own research without the constraint of ensuring that the results are useful to the company. As of this year, it has fostered five Nobel Prize winners and generated nearly 7,500 patents.

"Just push the development of fundamental research and allow the brightest scientists to freely explore the issues they find interesting," Andre said.

Three conditions

The question of whether the Ten-Thousand Talents Program will do anything to improve fundamental science, however, is open to debate.

China ranked second in the world for research and development investment last year, in excess of 1 trillion yuan ($164 billion). But less than 5 percent was allocated to fundamental science.

The percentage in developed economies is at least double that in China, according to the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the top political advisory body.

Liu said three basic conditions decide the level of a country's fundamental research: talent, investment and the research culture.

"I expect it will bring in further investment ... and attach more significance to cultivating scientific talent," he said, before predicting that the program will start to produce results after five to 10 years.

Li Xia, professor of scientific policy at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, agreed and said the attempt to liberalize funding is a push in the right direction to encourage creativity and pure science.

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