About the grants.
In mainland China, most personal research support for discrete projects is provided through the National Natural Science Fund in the form of NSFC Basic Research Grants. The NSFC grants are aimed at promoting and financing basic and applied research in China and cover all natural sciences, with just over 35% of funding usually going to medical research. The Basic Research Grants are Principal Investigator (PI) driven and awarded for up to 6 years and to 600,000 RMB. The grant schemes are responsive mode, in that the PI is free to choose any research problem within the field of Natural Sciences. The NSFC is considered to be more independent than the National High-Tech R&D Program (863 Programme) and National Basic Research Program of China (973 Programme), which fund high-profile research programmes by key researchers working in the more prestigious departments. Nevertheless, 40% of the funding tends to go to projects based at (or affiliated with) the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the elite C9 league of universities. Consequently, it is important to choose your host university carefully. In terms of PI based project support, the NSFC also offers Research Fellowships for International Young Scientists under the International (Regional) Cooperation and Exchange Programme and for China-based scientists under the Young Scientists Fund, both intended for researchers under the age of 35. NSFC personal grants are competitive, with an average success rate of around 25% and over 52 billion RMB invested across their 28 year history.
The deadline for applications is around March annually; the exact date varies according to the timing of Chinese New Year, which tends to just precede the deadline, and is set according to a quasi-lunar calendar. It is most important to bear this in mind because few of your potential collaborators are likely to be available in the month before the deadline, owing to the long New Year holiday. It is also important to note that the NSFC-published deadline is not the one that you need to work to, in reality one must complete the application in time for your own university’s deadline; this is in order to allow time for the university to check, approve and submit your application. Your university may also have its own rules regarding the research budget being claimed. For example, some departments expect PIs to choose projects which utilize the maximum amount of funding available or set their own limits on certain funding categories (e.g., overseas travel). The results of the NSFC applications are usually conveyed by email in September of the same year.
The grant submission process involves a web-based submission system rather like the RCUK Joint Electronic Submissions Je-S system. There is one significant difference in that applicants download a Windows executable file which generates the application form. The program generates a certain number of copies for the university administration and one master copy which is submissible; this makes editing a slightly more time consuming exercise than might be expected because a new submission must be generated in order to make any changes to a master document. The application form itself is shorter and more flexible than many European grant forms. An abstract in English is required, followed by the rest of the form in Chinese. There are six sections to address in Part I, the introduction, definition of the research problem, methods to be applied, innovative aspects of the research plan, timetable, and opportunities for international exchange. Part II requires an account of the PI’s history and suitability to lead the proposal, the facilities available at the proposed host institution, and a CV of the PI. In addition, CVs are required for the co-applicants, but not for collaborators and students named in the final table of the form.
The NSFC grant application procedure has one other crucial difference from RCUK grants. In China there is a limit on how many NSFC grants one can be named on at one time. The ID (or passport) numbers of all persons named on the grants are recorded and this rule is strictly enforced. For example, if one were to allow oneself to be named on two grant applications as a co-applicant, this would mean that you would be ineligible to co-author any further grants for up to six years. Also, it is not permitted to apply for a grant as a PI when already holding two NSFC personal grants. The effect of these rules is that there is competition for co-applicants, and researchers may need to work hard to ensure that their grant carries the name of a prominent researcher in their field. Indeed, the names on one’s application can carry some weight, and too few (or inappropriate) collaborators on the form could reduce the chances of success. The exact rules change from year to year and it is worth checking well in advance.
In summary, the NSFC grant application procedure is one with some similarities and a few key differences from those in Europe. It is necessary to plan your application many months in advance, and above all to make allowance for Chinese New Year. It is also crucial to check the current year’s deadlines personally with your university officials (do not simply refer to websites). Finally, with a good proposal, which is written in the context of Chinese culture and social values, one has a good chance of obtaining a share of China’s research and technology investment boom.