Last week, China quietly announced a reform plan aimed at overhauling its competitive scientific funding system. The new system, although only vaguely defined, will take the bulk of competitive funding and redirect it through five new channels. It could, some commenters observe, even lead to a dissolution or drastic restructuring of the ministry of science and education. But will it be a real reform or just lip service?

According to Chinese media sources, the reforms will streamline distribution of grants and reduce the amount of duplicated experiments. But the problems run much deeper than inefficient use of funds, says Richard Suttmeier, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Oregon who has consulted the Chinese government on science policy. Suttmeier says that there is a “pressing need” to fix the current funding arrangements, which “tend to produce derivative research and have contributed to misconduct and corruption”.

Various scientists and policy experts, including Suttmeier, are hoping the reforms will drastically alter the way science is practised in the country and are welcoming the news with caution, even though the details are still are not clear.

“Current funding arrangements..tend to produce derivative research and have contributed to misconduct and corruption”

No one expects a destabilizing, overnight change. But Xue Lan, a government policy and management expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, warns that in the “medium term” there might be a period of confusion, during which the “many familiar programmes are consolidated and the agencies running them change”. Eventually, he says, grants will be more substantial and scientists will be able to “focus on their research without having to run around to get bits of grant here and there,” Xue adds. “In the long run, the impact should be very positive.”

Rao Yi, a neuroscientist and former dean of Peking University’s School of Life Sciences, however, worries that the change might be just cosmetic. In a 2004 Nature Chinese language supplement, ‘China Voices II’, Rao co-authored a controversial article calling for a radical overhaul of the distribution system for scientific funding — what he calls the first public suggestion that the policy-making part of the ministry of science and technology (MOST) should be separated from its funding part.

But although the announced reforms are “exactly” what he recommended then, he says, he is not optimistic. “Because the MOST is closely involved in making this ‘change,’ the major question is whether the reform will be real or whether MOST will put its people in charge and simply hide behind a new name,” he says.

Suttmeier agrees that we may see “a repackaging of existing programmes under new organizational arrangements — the ‘old wine in new bottles’ phenomenon”. He adds, though, that there is also a possibility of a “significant repurposing of government programmes”.

Whether the changes to the funding system will be real depends on what changes are made to the organizational system over the next 2–3 years, he says.

Cong Cao, a science-policy analyst at the University of Nottingham, UK, says that the degree of organizational change — which could include dissolving the science ministry — will probably be decided at the next National People’s Congress, in 2018.

Whatever the outcome, Suttmeier says, China needs changes that go beyond tweaking the funding system. “The creation of a more authentic culture of basic science,” he says, “cannot be established by funding alone.”