'Bounty system' to boost tech innovations
China has adopted a new "bounty system" to give young and capable scientists more opportunities, facilitate the commercialization of their research results, and help them clear technological obstacles to meet the country's socioeconomic needs, experts said.
According to the system called jie bang gua shuai ("accepting the bounty and taking charge"), the government will unveil a list of specific research obstacles submitted either by public institutions or private companies, and all capable research teams can apply to clear those obstacles irrespective of their age, educational qualifications, or the job positions of their leading scientists.
The selected research teams will receive government funding and policy support, but they must complete the project on time and pass the rigorous appraisal.
The new system was proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2016. Since then pilot programs at local government levels have seen varying degrees of success in supporting scientists to quickly overcome technological hurdles, and promote innovation-driven socioeconomic growth. The program, highlighted in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), will now be rolled out across the country.
List of categories
On May 10, the Ministry of Science and Technology published a list of eight key research categories to be promoted in the next five years. They are: mathematics, stem-cell research, nanoscience, biology, condensed matter physics, catalyst chemistry, engineering sciences, and frontier research using major scientific instruments.
Zheng Jianjian, an official from the ministry's Department of Resource Allocation and Management, told Science and Technology Daily that the government will also include in the system fields such as material sciences for core equipment, etiology of diseases, clean energy, agricultural sciences, clinical instruments and biomedical material, as well as other subjects crucial for the country's strategic needs.
The new system is designed to explore new ways of organizing and managing scientific projects, and allowing them to quickly produce practical applications that can benefit both users and the economy, Zheng said. "We want to focus our efforts to make breakthroughs in these fields, and hope to achieve major scientific achievements within two years.
While the threshold for applying for the "bounty system" is low, after a research team is given a research topic, it has to sign an agreement taking full responsibility of seeing the project through.
The performance of the research teams will be evaluated by third-party agencies based on their results and to what extent their work can meet the demands of the endusers, Zheng said. These measures are aimed at encouraging young and capable scientists to try innovative methods to overcome challenges, and motivating local governments to collaborate with other parties to jointly apply for the projects and conduct research for the benefit of the world.
Working out details
Scientists and officials are still working out the details of the new system, such as the criteria for different technological fields, the responsibilities of the parties involved, and what happens to the research team, the funder and the bounty system when a project fails to meet the expectations.
Ji Yongqiang, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee, said the new system can help resolve some of the biggest issues in scientific research such as the cumbersome paperwork and the centralization of research resources. Chinese scientists typically seek funding for research by listing their experiments through applications, and often have to spend a considerable amount of energy and time to complete the paperwork and convince funding agencies that their work is worthwhile, he said.
Since established scientists and institutions have great influence and resources in their respective fields, innovation-oriented young talents may not get the chance to lead key projects for lack of recognition or personal connections.
But as the new system will make the research topic public in advance, scientists only need to conduct research to solve the problem, for which, they need not go through unnecessary paperwork. In particular, young scientists can get more resources and opportunities to lead key projects, Ji said.
Liang Zheng, a professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, said the new system encourages open and fair competition among research entities, and will allow truly groundbreaking innovations and solutions to shine.
Liu Zhongfan, noted nanotechnology expert and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the new system focuses on the efforts of the most capable talents and allows them to work as a team to overcome tangible technological obstacles. But it may be less effective in promoting basic research because exploring the scientific frontiers may not produce tangible results or practical applications within the required time limit, Liu said.
Long Haibo, a senior researcher at the Development Research Center of the State Council, China's Cabinet, said the success of the new system depends on creating realistic bounties and selecting the best candidates for the job.
Yongkang, a county-level city in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, produces about 44 million metal doors a year, or about 75 percent of the country's total. But in recent years, this 18-billion yuan ($2.8 billion) local door-making industry is facing severe challenges due to the outdated production system, the China Central Television reported.
According to the Simto Group, one of the leading door manufactures in Yongkang, door-making is a physically and mentally demanding job involving at least a dozen steps. Workers not only have to carefully craft the details on the door, they also have to manually transfer these metal doors, each weighting 25-30 kilograms, from one production point to another. Owing to these factors, along with the heat, noise and long working hours at the factory, young workers have shunned the sector, which is threatening the long-term prosperity of the industry and the local economy.
The obvious solution is automation, but Simto discovered that the robots available in the market are too slow and clunky to be used in the door-making industry. Also, one automated production line can produce only one type of door, with no options for extensive customization, which is a major feature of the industry.
So Simto decided to try the new bounty system by announcing a reward of 10 million yuan ($1.56 million) for a solution. Simto reported its difficulties and requirements to the Jinhua city government, which compiled a total of 100 "bounties" from 66 companies, and held a convention to publicize these commissions in May last year.
Shortly after, Wu Chuanyu, a professor from the Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, approached Simto. Wu is an expert in agricultural machinery and industrial automation and holds more than 200 patents, and although most of his work is experimental, he had been eager to apply his research in the real world.
Without the bounty system, Simto would not have got the help of such an expert, and Wu wouldn't have known his research could help the door-making industry. Within six months, Wu and his team designed a smart, automated production line for Simto which reduced the number of workers per factory from 100 to just four. The production line is also highly versatile, capable of making about 80 percent of the company's customized products.
And with new data and practical experience under their belt, Wu's team published three scientific papers and received nine patents for their inventions. Early this year, Simto paid Wu 10 million yuan, and their partnership was so mutually beneficial that the media described it as "catching a golden phoenix".
Similar stories have been reported from other provinces including Guangdong, Anhui, Shaanxi and Hunan. And as of May 14, Hubei province had issued 312 bounties, with research teams taking up 154 of the challenges.
Li Jun, president of supercomputer manufacturer company Sugon, said the bounty system has been used by private companies for some time. But when applied at the national level, it can overcome key technical obstacles and foster a generation of highly skilled and motivated talents.
Xinhua contributed to this story.
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