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March 21, 2019

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Measuring up as hub of science innovation

TWENTY-FIVE measures offering greater financial and administrative support for aspiring innovators were unveiled by the city government yesterday.

The measures will accelerate the city’s development as a global science innovation hub.

“Shanghai is striving to become a place where academic research, inventions and cutting-edge industries are born,” said Fang Hao of the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission.

According to Fang, reducing administrative involvement in scientific study and shifting power to scientists is the foundation of innovation.

“We do lack innovation. We don’t have many top institutes or achievements and we don’t have much of the best talent. Even if we have some new ideas, it is difficult to call others to do research with us.

“The phenomenon has its roots in excessive administrative interference and the fallout from the planned economy. We manage too much and can’t stimulate innovation.”

Universities and research institutes will be allowed to decide their own projects, pay researchers and buy lab equipment without going through complicated procedures and enduring interminable downtime awaiting official approval.

“We need evaluation, not surveillance of every step they take. We want researchers to do whatever they feel the need to do,” Fang said.

“The new measures relieve us of the need to report to authorities if we make some adjustment in our projects with funds below 500,000 yuan (US$74,705),” said Huang Huijie, deputy director of Shanghai Robotics Industrial Technology Institute.

“We do research on artificial intelligence, which needs quite a lot of equipment, and we often change that equipment. It is a highly competitive industry that moves very fast. We will lose the best places if we have to report our every move to authorities,” she said. “Now we are freer to move as fast as we can.”

Under one of the measures, authorities will explore the conversion of state intangible assets into shares so as to make institutes more flexible and free to turn ideas into products.

Since 2015, the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has earned 3.33 billion yuan by selling 42 research findings to commercial enterprises.

While this may sound lucrative, it is the enterprises that have benefited the most from the information.

The institutes can now explore taking a shareholding stake in a commercial enterprise.

“We all know that the best way is to have shares because it can bring in continuous profits,” said Guan Shuhong from Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica. “We’ve thought about it, but we didn’t actually do it. We had to ensure that we don’t lose our state assets.”

Authorities are also committed to helping young startups establish a long-time funding system to retain the high-end talent that will inevitably emerge.

“Not all scientific research comes to fruition in as short time as we might hope,” Fang said.

“We have to look beyond the end of our nose. We can’t be constantly hassling our researchers for progress reports. We need a systematic evaluation scheme that allows people to get on with their work.”

Guan agrees: “Especially in the biomedicine sector, it usually takes us a very long time to develop a new medicine. We’ve spent 21 years on one new drug. Over the period, we need money constantly, both from social and government funds.”

“If we rely purely on social fundraising, we still need to wait for official approval. In a market economy, chances fly by. Money does not wait for you,” she added.

Another major problem for innovators is that only a few ideas turn into actual products due to a lack of incentives.

Previously, people from research and development institutes who worked to turn ideas into products did not get any reward and missed on promotions, unlike their peers who restricted themselves to pure lab work.

Under the new measures, they will get at least 10 percent of any income resulting from their achievements and will have special access to promotions.

“I’m all for it,” said Zhang Dawei, from the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.

Universities need good agents who can sell ideas, technology and products, he said.

“Many people don’t want to be agents because they feel that they are little more than real estate agents, just selling a different product,” he said. “And they don’t get much reward or promotion even if they do the job well.

“In our school, people who act as agents are members of our administrative staff. Some earn much less than a deputy professor, even after working for more than 10 years.”

The initiatives in the new measures include a provision that 30 percent of the government purchasing budget should go to medium, small and mini enterprises.

“Our biggest problem is how to sell our products and how to nurture the market. It is vital that the government takes the initiative in helping smaller enterprises launch their products on the market,” said Liu Yan’gang, head of Advanced Industrial Technology Research Institute of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The measures also pay heed to the development of “social innovation.”

Social business should work closer with state-owned technological innovation institutes. All relevant enterprises are encouraged to give greater support to their research and development institutes.

“We are seeking more power and support from business,” said Luo Dajin from Shanghai Science and Technology Commission. “We are exploring ways to treat private enterprises’ research institutes equally.”

Being a top innovation center requires deep international cooperation. Overseas research and innovation institutes will be encouraged to build global innovation centers in Shanghai and cooperate with local labs.

Local researchers will be granted green channels for overseas academic tours, and local high-end events will be expanded.

“We hope everyone will come to Shanghai to release their new inventions. The city has to raise both its global awareness and its global profile,” said Fang.


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