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Emerging Technology Report #10: June 10, 2002

An Overview of Nanotechnology and Biotechnology: Research and Support in China

- Summary -

Miwako Waga (Global Emerging Technology Institute)

The 6th Asian Science and Technology Conference was held in Tokyo on May 20, featuring two distinguished speakers from China and Prof. Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University, who was the Nobel Prize Winner for Chemistry in 2001. The conference was organized by Nihon Keizai Shimbun and the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo. The focus of the conference this year was "The Challenge for China and Japan toward Creating Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and IT Industries."

Dr. Bai Chunli, who functions as the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Science and is the Chief Scientist for the National Steering Committee for Nanoscience and Related Technology presented an overview of China's nanotechnology initiatives.  China's basic policy is to promote science and education in order to achieve sustainable economic development. The national R&D budget appropriation system was reformed back in 1985, leading to the privatization of research institutes. Recently, 242 research institutes were privatized (1998-99) and a number of non-profit research institutes were reorganized (2000). Following this privatization and re-organization activity, a research project subcontract system was also introduced in 2001. The Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) is the highest ranking research organization in China, accommodating 110 research institutes, 68,000 researchers and 17,000 graduate students. Its annual budget is 5 billion RMB (US$600M). CAS is now making efforts to invite top researchers from abroad in order to help strengthen basic research and high technology development.

China pays close attention to the latest developments in nanotechnology, Dr. Bai said. Some 50 universities, 30 research institutes, and 300 enterprises are involved in nanotechnology research in China. Funding sources include the Ministry of Science & Technology, the National Committee for Development and Planning (NCDP), the Ministry of Education, and the Chinese Academy of Science. Chinese nanotechnology research is concentrated on materials, with research on nano- devices and biotechnology still fairly limited, according to Dr. Bai. In 1999-2001, there were 530 research items, of which 73 items had only 500,000 RMB (US$60,000) worth of funding. Dr. Bai mentioned that the funding of nanotechnology in China has been relatively low, as 10 years of funding in China is usually on a par with one year of funding in the US. Yet, CAS has produced world-class research results in carbon nanotubes, nano-particles and powder materials. Other examples in materials research conducted in China include photo-catalytic nano-materials for contaminated water, super plasticity and extensibility of Cu nano-materials, and super-amphiphobic materials. On the other hand, more support is needed for quantum and molecular nano-device related research. It is expected that from 2001-2005, approximately 2 billion RMB (US$240M) will be earmarked for nanotechnology R&D. Half of the funding comes from the Ministry of Science & Technology, with the rest supported by NCDP, the CAS, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), and the Ministry of Education.

Future challenges in regard to promoting nanotechnology in China include the installation of more advanced equipment and facilities at state key laboratories, as well as the protection of intellectual property. Dr. Bai welcomed recent moves by US corporations (including Motorola, IBM, and Microsoft) which have recently established research centers in China. It is expected that these firms can assist Chinese nanotechnology firms, which are mostly small in size.

The other keynote speaker at the conference, Dr. Zhu Chen, a Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Science and a Professor at Shanghai Rui Jim Hospital, SSMU, Shanghai, presented an outline of the latest in biotechnology research being conducted in China. It is anticipated that biotechnology will be a key sector for China, a country with a population of well over one billion people. Advances in biotechnology are expected to have an enormous impact on the environment, the Chinese population, and related healthcare issues. Also, advances in biotechnology are expected to reduce the negative externalities created by excessive agricultural activity, leading to improved efficiency and productivity.

It has been determined that it will be essential for the Chinese Government to prioritize research initiatives, given budget restrictions on the funding of basic research. Biotechnology is close to the top of the list of priorities for China. The CAS has 20 biotechnology-related research centers and employs 6,000 researchers. About 15%, or 750 million RMB (US$90M) of CAS's annual budget is allocated for biotechnology-related research. At NSFC, one-third of their budget, or 600-700 million RMB (US$70-85M), is earmarked for biotechnology. So far, functional genomics, the cure of diseases, molecular biology, and other areas within the biotechnology sector have been of particular interest to the Chinese. In the future, research related to cloning technology, biochips, bioreactors, and proteomics will increase in importance, according to Dr. Chen.

Dr. Chen provided some interesting statistics. The life science sector in China is only approximately 3% of the sizeof its U.S. counterpart. The size of China's pharmaceutical industry is close to US$42B, or 4.2% of its GDP (US$1,000B), compared to the US's US$1,500B, or 19% of its GDP (US$8,000B). Annual consumption of medicine in China is 1/60 of that of Japan. There are some 6,000 pharmaceutical companies in China, yet many companies copy products developed in advanced nations. China's participation in the World Trade Organization (WTO) will force Chinese companies to respect intellectual property rights from now on, claimed Dr. Chen. They also will be exposed to the global market, which will most likely lead to definite changes in the way biomedical research is conducted in China.

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