The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) launched its ambitious Pioneer Initiative in August 2014 to achieve several priority objectives, but one goal was elevated above all others: to support China's drive for excellence in the national and global scientific enterprise. The effort has required a comprehensive restructuring to the Academy. By bringing a sharper focus and urgency, the initiative supports a new level of ambition in our day-to-day work and long-term mission. It has the potential to make the Academy stronger in both the basic and applied sciences that address specific national needs and challenges. At the same time, it strengthens CAS's role as a major hub for high-impact international research cooperation.
The CAS Pioneer Initiative, PI for short, is a direct result of the visit made by Chinese President Xi Jinping to CAS in July 2013. During the visit, Xi acknowledged CAS's significant past contributions; he also offered clear instructions and advice on its course for the future. He particularly appealed to CAS to focus efforts on the frontiers of science, national needs and the economy. Specifically, he urged CAS to be a pioneer in four areas: achieve a leap forward for developments in science and technology (S&T); set high national standards for the cultivation of talent; build a national, high-quality S&T think-tank; and become a cutting-edge, world-class research institution.
After President Xi's visit, we made a thorough assessment of our situation and came to an important realization: We needed to resolve some fundamental challenges and obstacles that hindered discovery and innovation such as fragmentation and low-level duplication in research that led to inefficiency. That really meant we had to change the structure and mechanisms of how research was organized and done. Without improvement in these areas, CAS would not be in a position to serve as a pioneer in science.
These analyses led to CAS's initiation of the Pioneer Initiative, and its adoption of President Xi's advice as the new guiding principles of the Academy. From the start, the initiative has received strong support from the Chinese leadership and various governmental agencies. We believe it places CAS at the start of a new era.
2 Past, Present and Future
To understand PI and its importance, one has to understand the nature and history of CAS, and the external environment in which the Academy works. Founded in 1949, one month after the founding of New China, CAS for a long time enjoyed a unique position in the nation's S&T development. It worked in every field of research, from mathematics and theoretical physics to semiconductors and ecosystem sciences. In the early years, as a national team, it brought together China's scientific elite, and it also attracted an influx of high-caliber Chinese researchers who had been overseas. Backed by the nation's full resources, and with little competition from outside, CAS was the only S&T powerhouse in China.
Over the years, CAS has made significant contributions to the advance of Chinese science and the national innovation system. Today, it serves three major functions in China's science enterprise: research and development, strategic advice and higher education. CAS remains China's largest national research organization, and it is still the premier national strategic research force, positioned to meet the challenge of both achieving scientific excellence and serving major national needs. Yet the external environment today is totally different. Competition is rigorous and ever-increasing. Pressure comes from the university sector and from the ministry-supported institutes that have grown rapidly in size and strength, particularly in the past decade.
In light of its strategic role and the competitive external environment, CAS has every motivation to strengthen its position and to focus its resources and energy on major issues and challenges. To further differentiate it from these other two sectors is a natural part of our efforts. Though CAS in years past did make some attempts to reform itself, it never took serious actions to address the challenges in structure and mechanisms, and to assure these fundamentals are conducive to progress and impact on major scientific issues and challenges. A modern organization, to succeed nationally and at a global scale, must constantly evolve in this way.
Conceived to address these issues, PI calls for a large-scale restructuring of CAS research institutes into four basic categories, roughly according to the nature of their work, and each with a distinct focus, goals and characteristics.
Centers for excellence are committed to cutting-edge research at the frontiers of science;
Innovation academies focus on major national needs and project-oriented research and development;
Centers of big science facilities provide open research platforms such as particle accelerators, synchrontron light sources and magnetic facilities, committing to meeting he needs at the regional and national level;
Feature institutes work on specialized challenges relating to economy and social sustainable development such as landslides and water and soil conservation in arid areas.
This organization enables each unit or center under PI to focus on certain types of research and challenges with lots of interdisciplinary teamwork and collective use of resources. A unit under PI can either be constructed based on talent from one or two institutes or from a number of institutes.
In terms of implementation strategy, we take a step by step approach, letting some role models guide the way, thus ensuring the effectiveness and effect of the initiative. We have approved a dozen of these units and progressed faster than planned. Right now, we are investigating and examining the effect and impact of the program. We are particularly looking at if these units approved have brought obvious changes to the structure and mechanisms of research – in other words, whether research is organized and done with more synergy and resources. Another factor of our consideration is to look at if a unit has become more competitive in getting national research projects. If one is not showing improved competitiveness in leading or participating in relevant national projects, how can we be assured of its pioneering capacity? The results of these investigations will help us to decide on the next phrase of the implementation, and they may lead us to remove the underperforming units from the list.
Needless to say, in addition to PI, we are also using various measures to enhance and improve our recruitment of talent, evaluation of research performance, and deployment of research programs and projects.
3 Shared Missions, Working in Harmony
The implementation of PI harmonizes very well with the CAS 135 Strategy, which we launched in 2011 not long after I became president of the Academy. In fact, the practice of the 135 Strategy has laid a good foundation for the implementation of PI. What is the 135 Strategy? The number 1 refers to the strategic positioning of an institute. The number 3 designates an institute's achievement of three major breakthroughs or successes in a period of five years, either in basic or applied research. The number 5 represents the goal of nurturing five major successes for the longer term, over a course of five to ten years. CAS requested each of its institutes to clearly define and identify its research focus, core competency and special features, identifying the “3” and “5” and working on them with collective personnel and resources.
In terms of goals, the 135 Strategy clearly has a shared mission with PI. Like PI, it aims to address fragmentation and low-level duplication in research, promoting our institutes to be strategically focused and to work on big scientific challenges with synergy and collective resources, driving them to strengthen their competitive niche and to become irreplaceable in a rapidly changing and competitive environment. Both initiatives seek to advance CAS's position as a key player in China's national research system.
Attached to the implementation of the 135 Strategy were also efforts in reforming the CAS scientific management at CAS headquarters. We restructured our four scientific management bureaus, in which two had been aligned according to discipline and two according to the nature of work, and replaced them with three new ones aligned all according to the nature of work. The new ones are the Bureau of Frontiers of Science and Education, the Bureau of Major S&T Programs and the Bureau of S&T for Development. This effort, too, was aimed at improving management, administrative coherence, cross-disciplinary cooperation and maximization of resources.
The major difference is that the 135 Strategy is a bottom-up reform, while PI is top-down, aimed at changing the structure and mechanisms. CAS organized international reviews on the “135” and carried out a policy of giving more support to those institutes that have done a good job. In terms of the connectivity of these two initiatives, evidence shows that those institutes that have done a good job in the “135” framework can easily fit into PI.
4 A Commitment to International Cooperation
Much of the focus for the Pioneer Initiative and the 135 Strategy is domestic: At the highest level of leadership, there is a commitment to building a strong research system to bring the best possible return on China's investment in science and technology. However, it is essential to understand that this effort also provides strong support for international cooperation in research and scientific training.
For CAS, international S&T cooperation has been enormously important to past success – and it is undoubtedly important for our future, as well.
As an overarching Academy initiative, we have set high goals for international engagement. We implement an Academy-wide internationalization strategy and administer programs to support cooperative research and to recruit or collaborate with international talent; we bring in top-tier scientists at different levels and we send our researchers overseas. And because we know that innovation occurs in all parts of the world, we have programs to build cooperation and engagement with less-developed nations. We have also set up a few research centers at overseas locations such as the China–Chile Research Center in Astronomy in Chile and the CAS Central Asian Drug Discovery and Development Center in Tashkent. These efforts are the first of their kind by the Chinese scientific community.
For the various units under PI, international cooperation is an essential component that allows us to join the leaders of global research. As part of the initiative, we are also committing more resources to enhance and promote CAS international engagement. Working with scientists from other nations helps to build our knowledge and our capacity. It also allows us to increase our contributions to the growth of scientific knowledge worldwide and to address major scientific challenges which are often regional or global in nature. Cooperative solutions require shared knowledge and the shared, efficient use of resources.
5 An Efficient, Effective System of Research
Like research itself, the governance of research evolves through steady application and through constant review and evaluation. In simple terms: What works well? And what could work better?
This natural process is at the heart of the Pioneer Initiative. Looking into the future, PI needs to be in line with the overall Chinese national scientific reform and needs to move forward based on analysis of past experiences and lessons derived from practice.
Under the structures put in place by the Initiative, we are able to evaluate our needs and resources, and then to set our priorities. This sharpens our management and improves our ability to evaluate performance and helps us to use our resources efficiently, and with the best possible impact. As the premier national research organization, we need to do this. We believe that this leads to the development of a modern governance system for research.
In these ways and others, we can assure that the Chinese Academy of Sciences is oriented toward high-impact, high-value research as a high quality think-tank that meets the needs of the Chinese people and helps make us an effective partner in international research cooperation