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More balanced joint efforts, more innovations

By Chen Zhi | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-05 06:33
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Chinese leaders have repeatedly emphasized the significance of innovation-driven development. However, some skeptics wonder if China can achieve innovation and development solely through the advocacy of nationwide collaborative efforts and centralized resources. It is worth noting that such practices are not exclusive to China.

During World War II, the United States established the Office of Scientific Research and Development, rapidly researching and producing strategic products such as radars, penicillin, missiles, and laying the foundation for the Manhattan Project, which resulted in nearly 8,000 inventions, 3,000 patents and 2,500 scientific papers, laying the groundwork for post-war prosperity and the technological foundation of innovation in the US.

In the 1960s China had to mobilize various advantageous forces to build atomic bombs, nuclear, missiles and satellites, in order to independently develop such technologies to defend itself.

This approach of nationwide mobilization to drive technological innovation has been dynamically evolving. Following China's transition to a market economy, the government moved from using administrative measures for allocating technological resources to market-oriented approaches for promoting technological innovation.

The "National Medium- and Long-Term Science and Technology Development Plan (2006-2020)" released in 2006, outlines 16 major scientific and technological projects. Through nationwide joint efforts, the plan aimed to achieve breakthroughs in core technologies, integrate resources and accomplish challenging tasks related to significant strategic products, key common technologies and major engineering projects within specified timeframes.

Practice shows that centralized resources and nationwide joint efforts have been a crucial and successful experience for China. However, as the world is undergoing unprecedented changes, scientific and technological innovation, too, is facing significant challenges.

Market forces and contractual mechanisms are becoming fundamental elements in the innovation system of various global economies. Also, there is a global trend toward a national approach in critical industries such as integrated circuits, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and other key or future industries.

The Chinese government is reevaluating the impact of these changes on technological cooperation and innovation and establishing a new type of nationwide system for key core technological challenges, which require policy innovation and institutional innovation to overcome.

First, there is the challenge of balancing the relationship between the "invisible hand" and the "visible hand". In other words, a nationwide system needs to leverage the decisive role of the market in resource allocation and mobilize the enthusiasm of various links and entities, including industry, academia, research, and application.

The State needs to focus on systematic planning, organization and integration, particularly addressing key issues such as market failure and market realization.

Second, it is crucial to clearly define the boundaries of the nationwide approach, which should be limited to the only industrial sectors driven by key core technological challenges. It is not meant to be generalized and applied to all sectors and industries. In areas where market mechanisms can better function, the power of the market should be relied on, following the laws of industrial development, and core technological challenges should be primarily undertaken by enterprises guided by demand.

Finally, how to organize various entities, coordinate diverse resources and facilitate collaborative efforts is a significant test of the government's organizational and coordinating capabilities. During the era of "two bombs and one satellite" in the 1960s and 1970s, State-owned entities played a predominant role given the arduous tasks, poor conditions and limited time. However, in the current stage, there is a greater need to leverage the roles of leading enterprises, small and medium-sized private enterprises, and new research and development institutions. Organizing and incentivizing these entities have become practical challenges.

As early as the 1940s, the US' OSRD designed flexible research and development contracts, especially in terms of intellectual property clauses, granting ownership to the contracting unit in most cases while retaining the government's right to use and compulsory cross-licensing. This effectively stimulated the enthusiasm of enterprises and universities.

Therefore, for China's key core technological challenges, in most cases, the collaborative system should be based on a market-oriented operation system guided by the government. Task-leading institutions should organize and coordinate joint efforts, forming collaborative innovation entities to carry out concerted efforts. This necessitates the establishment of a clear and stable working mechanism and incentive system, creating a collaborative innovation ecosystem across multiple departments, levels, and stakeholders.

The author is director of and a researcher with the Institute of Innovation and Development, Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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