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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: April 2, 2011 NO. 14 APRIL 7, 2011
Revving Up the Sci-Tech Engine
Science and technology in China make rapid headway as exemplified in the country's many major breakthroughs

SPACEFLIGHT ACHIEVEMENT: The Shenzhou 7 spacecraft and space suits for Chinese astronauts are displayed at the China National Conference Center (JIN LIWANG)

Since 1953, China has enacted the 12 Five-Year Plan period (2011-15). In the recently concluded 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) the national strategy of giving priority to the development of science and technology was further strengthened.

"Enhancing the country's sci-tech innovative capacity is the key to accomplishing the tasks of the 12th Five-Year Plan and winning amid such fierce global competition," said Chinese President Hu Jintao on March 14 when he visited an exhibition showcasing China's major scientific and technological achievements in the past five years at the China National Conference Center in Beijing. The seven-day exhibition was jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) and 10 other agencies and drew widespread attention.

MST sources say, China's export value of hi-tech products reached $490 billion last year and ranked first in the world over the past five years. Meanwhile, the annual increments of hi-tech industries were 1.9 trillion yuan ($287.88 billion) last year, more than twice as in 2005 and currently ranking second in the world.

"Last year the number of people engaged in scientific research and lab activities was 2.55 million in China, more than one fifth of the world's total," said Wan Gang, Minister of the Science and Technology. "We have extensive human resources for science and technology with a total of 57 million, ranking first in the world and hence laying a solid foundation for the construction of an 'innovation-oriented country.'"

The concept of an innovation-oriented country was put forward at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held in October 2007. China started striving for this goal years ago. Experts said as a result of enhanced training of qualified personnel, the composition of scientists and technicians in China tends to be more rational; a team with middle-aged and young technicians as its main body has taken shape, and is playing an increasingly more important role.

"Science and technology have made speedy progress during the 11th Five-Year Plan, which was also the initial stage of the Outline of the National Program for Long- and Medium-term Science and Technology Development (2006-20)," said Wang Yuan, Executive Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development.

These scientific and technological achievements have attracted worldwide attention. They include the world's fastest supercomputer, Tianhe-1; a series of successful launches of the Shenzhou spacecraft that made China the third country mastering space walk technology following Russia and the United States; the launch of Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 (unmanned lunar orbiters) that started the country's ambitious lunar exploration program. Adding to this list are the high-speed railway project with a world-record speed of 486 km per hour and the discovery of iron-based superconducting materials that marked an important advance in the study of condensed matter physics have attracted worldwide attention.

Chinese scientists have also made a major breakthrough in a highly sensitive and extremely important field. Scientists successfully cloned a mouse named Xiao Xiao, which means tiny in Chinese, from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS, commonly known as reprogramed skin cells). The result proved non-embryonic iPS cells are truly pluripotent, and eliminated an ethical barrier troubling researchers around the world. This would essentially be a new way to clone adult mammals; and if the technique were to be applied to humans, it could offer the prospect of limitless supply of an individual's own stem cells, which can be used to treat various diseases. "Most research progresses in small steps. Xiao Xiao represents a jump forward," said Bruce Whitelaw from Britain's Roslin Institute where the first cloned mammal, a sheep named Dolly, was born.

LIFE-RELATED: A model of an intelligent traffic system is displayed at the China National Conference Center (LI FANGYU)

Last year, the total number of academic papers published by Chinese scientists reached 128,000, ranking second in the world; while authorized patents for inventions and Patent Cooperation Treaty applications rank third and fourth, respectively, in the world.

During the past five years, the country's investment in basic scientific research has increased steadily. Funds for the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and for the National Basic Research Program, the 973 Program, rose to 10.3 billion yuan ($1.56 billion) and 3 billion yuan ($454.55 million), respectively, last year, four and five times that of 2005.

Chen Yiyu, President of the NSFC Council and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), said China had invested more than 30 billion yuan ($4.55 billion) in total in the foundation during the past five years, twice the amount in the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-05).

MST statistics show the Central Government's financial input to science and technology kept at an annual growth rate of 20 percent during the 11th Five-Year Plan. Last year the figure reached 386 billion yuan ($58.48 billion), leading to a total sum of 698 billion yuan ($105.76 billion) for scientific research and experiments, nearly three times that of 2005 and ranking third in the world.

About 30 years ago, China began to reform its sci-tech system, and put forward the basic principle of economic construction based on science and technology, and development of science and technology for economic construction. Consequently, many enterprises increased their R&D investment year after year, aiming to boost their independent innovative capacity. In recent years appropriately two thirds of projects winning the State Scientific and Technological Progress Awards were either led by or financially supported by enterprises.

In the field of core electronic apparatus production, for example, Chinese companies previously mainly manufactured downstream products because of their inability to design and produce qualified chips. Nevertheless, the situation has changed recently. With the financial support from both the Central Government and local governments and enterprises themselves, the project of core electronic devices research and development, high-end general-purpose microchips and basic software products—one of the 16 major projects listed on the 2006-20 Outline—had made great achievements.

"Chips and software are indispensable to everday articles such as cellphones, refrigerators, automobiles and computers," said Wei Shaojun, an electronic expert in charge of the project. "So they're the foundation for the development of information industry."

Equipped with 2,048 FT-1,000 heterogeneous processors independently developed by Changsha-based National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), the upgraded version of Tianhe-1, or Tianhe-1A, reached a peak computing rate of 4,700 trillion times per second last year, becoming the world's fastest supercomputer in the TOP500 list.

Li Nan, Director of the Tianhe-1 Project Office at the College of Computer of NUDT, said roughly one seventh of all CPU chips of Tianhe-1 are developed and made in China. "The FT-1,000 chips are approaching international standard, and it's possible to replace all imported chips with domestic ones in the supercomputer," he said.

Home-made microchips will be installed in all Chinese supercomputers by the end of this year," said Hu Weiwu, chief designer of Loongson processors, a family of general-purpose CPUs developed in 2002 by the Institute of Computing Technology under the CAS.

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