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ASU China expert helps shape Chinese innovation strategy

ASU Vice Provost for International Strategic Initiatives Denis Simon
January 29, 2014

For the past three decades, Denis Simon, ASU’s vice provost for International Strategic Initiatives, has deeply engaged in analyzing and assessing China’s science and technology modernization efforts. He is among a select number of international scholars outside of China with expertise in understanding the political and economic dynamics of China’s efforts to develop a better performing research and development system.

As an academic scholar and as a senior management consultant, Simon has been called upon on several occasions by Chinese officials to help train local and national science and technology administrators and policymakers, enterprise leaders and research and development managers to help ensure China reaches its goal of becoming an innovation driven nation by 2020.

Toward this end, Simon recently visited Beijing again as one of 12 foreign experts from around the world selected to assist China’s Ministry of Science and Technology conduct its first comprehensive midterm review of the country’s 15 Year Medium-to-Long-term Science and Technology Plan (MLP). The plan was introduced in 2006 and is the product of more than two years of planning and deliberation by several hundred members of the Chinese science and technology community. Its goals and content are focused on major initiatives and projects needed to move China into the ranks of the top science and technology nations over the next several years. 

The MLP is designed to be the critical catalyst that will establish for China an entirely new economic and technology base to support Chinese development well into the 21st century. If successful, it will provide China with the scientific and technological wherewithal to boost its overall economic competitiveness, national security and sustainability,” he said.

Along with completing an extensive survey about many aspects of the structure and implementation of the MLP, Simon, in combination with 25 to 30 Chinese policymakers from across China’s science and technology system, participated in an intensive series of meetings over two days in Beijing that provided an opportunity to raise numerous questions about the ebb and flow of the MLP.

The atmosphere of the meeting, which was held against the backdrop of the 18th National Party Congress (18th NPC) last November, seemed to reflect a new level of openness in terms of China’s foreign science and technology relationships. Ministry of Science and Technology Minister Wan Gang, who attended several panels, promised that there would be increased transparency regarding China’s science and technology programs and policies, and that as a result of the reforms launched in conjunction with the 18th NPC, greater efforts would be made to promote more extensive levels of international science and technology cooperation, especially with international science and technology organizations.

The 12 foreign experts attending the midterm review and assessment were broken into four teams; Simon was involved in the team dealing with science and technology policy tools, instruments and promotion mechanisms. After two days of presentations and discussions, at the request of Wan, the foreign expert group produced a summary report highlighting both the tremendous progress China has made in advancing its domestic science and technology capabilities, and the huge challenges still facing the country as it seeks to move beyond its current status as “factory to the world,” Simon added.

“Almost a decade ago, senior Chinese officials recognized that sole reliance on a manufacturing-oriented economy would not be a sustainable approach for China, given its huge dependence on the burning of fossil fuels, the growing use of scarce natural resources and the severe environmental consequences in terms of both water and air pollution. Transition to a cleaner, knowledge-driven economy has become a necessity to ensure the viability of the economy over the long term,” he said.

The recommendations put forward by the foreign expert team included greater emphasis and support for basic research; providing more training and assistance to Chinese small and large enterprises, especially to enhance their innovation performance and research and development productivity; better financial resources management, especially in terms of ensuring greater accountability for grant monies received from the government; improvements in the utilization, deployment and distribution of high-end scientific and engineering talent; and identifying ways to improve the absorption and assimilation of imported technology and equipment so that there could be greater indigenization of the acquired technological know-how.

Most important, all of the foreign experts, even though they had widely varying backgrounds, came to the shared conclusion that China’s leaders and science and technology officials needed to do more to create, nurture and sustain a culture of creativity across the China mainland in order to encourage greater risk taking, more out of the box thinking and higher levels of technological entrepreneurship, Simon added.

The formal results from this multi-dimensional, multi-faceted review and assessment effort for the MLP will be completed in June 2014. Twenty groups have been established to carrying out different aspects of the evaluation process.

During his stay in Beijing, Simon also was invited to join a special MLP workshop at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University to meet with members of Team No. 15, which is focused on two issues: the science and technology policy framework, and the structure of international science and technology cooperation. Tsinghua University’s School of Public Management has a dedicated center focused on China’s science and technology development and innovation strategy; several of the school’s faculty specialize in the study of Chinese science and technology policy.

Simon offered extensive comments about the evolving dynamics of the U.S.-China Innovation Dialogue and the role it is playing in the context of the U.S.-China bilateral science and technology relationship. Simon is a member of the American experts team for the policy dialogue that has roots going back to 2008. The dialogue is sponsored by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (led by Wan) and the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House (led by John Holdren).

Simon’s comments focused on the under-utilization of the dialogue, stressing that the dialogue had tremendous underutilized potential, and with greater vision on the part of both sides, it could be transformed into a vehicle for facilitating greater Sino-U.S. collaboration regarding many of the key international science and technology problems of the 21st century, including new sources of clean energy, environment degradation, enhancing global health and improving food security.

The culmination of Simon’s visit to China was a meeting with new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in Beijing. As a previous recipient of China’s “National Friendship Award” from the State Administration on Foreign Expert Affairs in 2006, and a recognized international expert on Chinese innovation issues, Simon was chosen to be among a select number of foreign experts to gain an audience and dinner with Li. Sitting at the main table for the banquet dinner in the Great Hall of the People, he was able to speak with the Chinese premier about China’s innovation challenges.

He later shared similar remarks with Vice Minister Wang Zhigang, from the Ministry of Science and Technology, who also attended the gathering for the foreign experts. Wang, who likely will be visiting the U.S. later this year, was particularly interested in the findings from the MLP assessment meetings. As ASU’s chief individual responsible for managing the university’s strategy and relationships with China, Simon extended Wang an invitation to visit ASU on his forthcoming trip.