China’s National Key R&D Programmes (NKPs) are a new category of projects created after the 2014 reform of the national STI funding system. They have incorporated numerous previously-existing programmes such as MOST’s “863 Programme” for R&D, “Programme 973” for basic research, Key Technologies R&D Programme, and International S&T Cooperation Programme; and NDRC and MIIT’s Industrial Technology R&D Fund.

China’s National Key R&D Programmes support R&D in areas of social welfare and people’s livelihood, such as agriculture, energy and resources, environment, and health. They focus in particular on key and strategic technologies, featuring several well-targeted and defined objectives and deliverables to be achieved in a period ranging from three to five years, and reflecting a top-down and industry-university-research cooperation design which integrates basic research, technology application, demonstration and commercialisation.


NKPs are currently among the most active and standardised of China’s national funding programmes. A total of 65 NKPs have been established to date, each funding every year numerous projects in different areas.

Since their official launch, a total of 50.7 billion RMB (around 6.57 billion EUR) were allocated by the central government for 42 NKPs in the 2016 and 2017 annual calls.

Note: the cycle of 2018 China’s National Key R&D Programmes calls is still not completed at the time of writing and therefore budget figures for 2018 have not been included.


A total of 2,288 projects were funded under the 2016 and 2017 annuals calls for 42 National Key R&D Programmes. The majority was led by institutes of higher education and research structures (37.5% and 33%, respectively), followed by State-owned Enterprises (12%) and privately-held enterprises (9.5%). Almost eight thousand experts took part in the evaluation of proposals (a breakdown of the top 100 consortium leaders for NKPs in 2016 and 2017 is included in the Guide for EU stakeholders downloadable from this link).

Key policies and management framework

The main legal framework governing NKPs are the Interim Measures for the Management of National Key R&D Programmes, released by MOST and MOF at the end of June 2017. These outline the National Key R&D Programmes’ management structure and the division of responsibilities among different government bodies (which is similar to that of Megaprojects as depicted in the table at this page, with the only difference being that the NDRC is not involved in National Key R&D Programmess); the tender cycle and methods for applications; the eligibility requirements applicants must possess; reporting and evaluation tasks during the project implementation phase, as well as the project conclusion procedures to undertake at the end of the project. It is noteworthy that the Interim Measures explicitly encourage China-based affiliates of overseas entities to participate and lead NKPs, and foreign experts to be invited to sit in evaluation. A detailed abstract in English of the Interim Measures is available at this link. Abstracts for the other main regulatory documents are also available – Fund Management Measures, Budget Preparation Guidelines, and Budget Evaluation Norms.

“Intergovernmental Cooperation NKPs” and EU-China Co-Funding Mechanism

It should also be noted that calls under the EU-China Co-Funding Mechanism, from the Chinese side, are labelled as “National Key R&D Programmes”, together with other intergovernmental cooperation programmes (including bilateral programmes with 13 EU Member States, * or multilateral programmes with international institutions such as CERN, SKA, GIF, or BRICS countries, etc.).

The “Research on the Development of Magnetic Confinement Fusion Power” (link) and “Strategic International S&T Cooperation with One Belt, One Road countries” (link) also fall under this category of projects.

* These are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and United Kingdom.

Rules of participation and eligibility requirements

There exist two categories of requirements that applicants must possess in order to apply to National Key R&D Programmes:

  • General requirements outlined by the Interim Measures; and
  • Additional requirements specified in the project guidelines for specific NKPs

The first category includes: the requirement for applicants to have been legally registered in mainland China for a minimum duration of around 1 year; age-related requirements for proposed PIs or sub-topic coordinators; limitations on the maximum number of central S&T funding projects simultaneously implementable by PIs or other team members (generally no more than one or two national-level projects at the same time); and instructions regarding which government agency the applicant should obtain official endorsement from. *  If the proposed PI is a foreign national (including from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau), then relevant employment certificates should be provided (by the Chinese employer if the PI is employed full-time in China, or by both the Chinese and foreign employer if not employed full-time in China). Central and local governmental agencies, government officials, and experts who have drafted the tenders are automatically non-eligible.

Additional requirements might also be required for specific National Key R&D Programmes, depending on the their field, directions (e.g. research- or commercialisation-oriented), or activities (e.g. experiments involving certain resources such as pathogens, animals, etc.). The most recurrent generally are: requirement for the project consortium to provide additional funds according to certain proportions specified in the tender (usually ranging from 1:1 to 4:1 in correlation with funds to be provided by the central government); encouragement of “industry-university-research” joint applications; obligation to promote the conversion and application of results generated under the project; ** mandatory or legally-binding data-sharing with MOST; ***  or requirement to launch certain project activities in specifically-indicated areas such as national sustainable development pilot areas. Some calls also encourage, or in some cases require, young scientists to participate or lead the projects as PIs.

* Official written endorsement from certain bodies is required to submit applications. Entities belonging to, or with direct business/operation relation with State Council’s bodies should seek endorsement by these; companies which are members of industry associations, or “A levels” S&T alliances should seek endorsement by these; the rest should seek endorsement from the S&T departments of the municipality or province where they are located. A full list of endorsing bodies is available at this link.

** No specific details or requirements on how such results shall be converted. This however suggests that any National Key R&D Programmes proposals should include specific deliverables related to conversion of technology results and commercialisation into specific products or equipment.

*** Legally-binding agreement should be signed for the unconditional and timely delivery of all the scientific data produced under the project to a platform designed by MOST, which shall also be shared with other participants as well as other companies and the public. Applications missing such a written agreement will automatically be rejected. Failure to deliver relevant data will lead to the suspension and recovery of funds, and subsequent blacklisting. It is however not clear what it is referred to as “data”.

“Directionally-selected NKPs”

Some NKPs also feature the “directional application” (定向申报) methodology of application which characterises Megaprojects. These refer to National Key R&D Programmes for which consortium leaders are already decided and specified in the tender guidelines, and are entrusted to identify and recruit other consortium members. A detailed project implementation proposal will be then drafted by the consortium leader, before being submitted to the expert committee for evaluation and approval (can take several rounds).

This category of projects aims to strengthen top-down design and coordination. Any actors interested in this category of projects should contact and coordinate with consortium leaders.

Project cycle and application process

Tender guidelines for National Key R&D Programmes are published on the National Science and Technology Information System, Public Service Platform on a yearly basis, usually in groups. The first cycle of 2016 annual calls was published between February and April 2016. The cycle of 2017 annual calls was published in October 2016. 2018 annual calls were published in October 2017 and December 2017.

The tender cycle usually lasts six months, and can be summarised as follows:

The application process is divided into two rounds of application:

  • Pre-application, submitted online through the National Service Platform (hardcopy versions of the application materials must also be shipped as indicated in the tender guidelines)
  • Official application of candidates who have passed the screening and first evaluation round

The application deadline is usually four to five weeks from the date of publishing of the final tender guidelines. Unlike in Europe, Chinese programmes do not follow the practice of pre-announcing new calls. In practice, the publication of previous calls for comments on a draft version of the tender might nonetheless be seen as such (although these do not specify the estimated date of publishing of the final tender guidelines), thus allowing potential applicants to start preparing proposals and consortiums in advance. From an analysis conducted on 2016 and 2017 cycles, it emerged that no substantial differences generally exist between draft tenders in calls for comments and final tenders published (generally related to revised deliverables, or to new added research topics).

Evaluation criteria and transparency

Both NKPs’ tender guidelines and management regulations do not indicate the criteria according to which proposals are evaluated. However, two NKPs in 2017 published an attachment indicating a detailed scoring system on the basis of which proposals are evaluated during the final interview

Nevertheless, it seems that the scoring results are not shared with the applicants after the evaluation.

All information related to any stage of the NKPs’ cycle, including calls for comments, official tender guidelines, are regularly published on the National Service Platform. The lists of experts who have drafted each tender guidelines, or who sit in the evaluation committees, are also openly published and accessible from the platform, together with the lists of final approved projects and winners (this information is however limited to consortium leaders and PIs, not to the entire consortium members). This contributes to a very high degree of transparency for National Key R&D Programmes – the highest among the five funding programmes at the national level. Substantial improvements are also being registered year-on-year in those areas which resulted less transparent in previous years.

International participation: figures, challenges and opportunities

Even though the legal framework of NKPs explicitly encourages the participation of international actors and experts in both the preparatory and implementation stages of the projects, in reality the situation seems to not meet these expectations.

From an analysis of the 2016 and 2017 annual tender cycles, it emerged that:

  • Only 22 out of 2,288 (0.9%) NKPs assigned were led by international entities
  • Only 2 out of 2,288 National Key R&D Programmes assigned were led by a foreign PI (note: a third one was assigned in 2018)
  • Very few foreign experts sat in evaluation committees (all being ethnic Chinese foreign nationals, or Hong Kong / Macao / Taiwan citizens)
  • No evidence of foreign experts among the expert committees drafting tender guidelines

No figures on international participation in wider project consortiums are available, but is expected that these should be higher.

As it was suggested throughout a series of interviews conducted with EU R&D industry stakeholders, the low degree of international participation might be attributable to a still narrow mind-set prevailing among many decision-makers and evaluators, who in the majority of cases belong to state-owned enterprises, shiye danwei or other governmental or quasi-governmental organisations. Their lack of understanding of the role and contributions that international enterprises and research institutions offer to the Chinese innovation ecosystem tend to divert their judgments towards safer (domestic) options, or to proposals from different departments belonging to the same organisation.

In addition, the relatively short application period is considered to represent a significant challenge to preparing effective proposals; however, this is mitigated by the publication of previous calls for comments on draft versions of the tender guidelines, usually published two or three months in advance (see “project cycle section” above).

At the same time, it has also emerged that some National Key R&D Programmes tend to appear appear more open and accessible compared to others; or appear open at the de jure level, but only showing opposing results at the de facto level. These different “degree of openness” of NKPs are depicted in a scatter diagram included at p.64 of the Guide for EU stakeholders .

Future Outlook

The 2016 and 2017 tender cycles were completed for all NKPs. The 2018 tender cycle started in May 2017, with the publication of calls for comments, around six months before the official publication of final tender guidelines. The 2018 cycle is completed for most NKPs as of August 2018, while the first calls for comments for a few NKPs in 2019 have already been published. Each NKP is usually implemented for up to five years (five annual cycles), before being replaced by a new batch of programmes. The 42 NKPs established in 2015 will therefore end in 2020.

Recommendations for EU stakeholders

Similarly to the funding programmes under the Natural Science Fund, numerous articles and blogs providing tips and recommendations on different aspects of the application process to NKPs can easily be found online or on public Wechat accounts. Given the large number of projects funded under NKPs (2,288 in only two years), many experts have gained rich knowledge and applicable experience. Moreover, the entire tender cycles of 2016 and 2017 National Key R&D Programmes calls have been strictly monitored and analysed by the project team.

On this basis, the most significant recommendations to European actors are summarised below according to different aspects of the application process:

Choose the right National Key R&D Programme:

  • As mentioned before, some NKPs appear more open and accessible compared to others. This is mainly due to explicit encouragement of international cooperation, to less stringent eligibility requirements, or to higher concentration among both evaluators and winners of privately-held firms rather than State or military entities (these different “degree of openness” of NKPs are depicted in a scatter diagram included at p.64 of the Guide for EU stakeholders).
  • Additionally, some NKPs might have slight overlaps in terms of R&D tasks to be funded: different aspects of the same product/technology might fall under different NKPs. It is therefore recommended to focus on the NKPs that appear to be most open, particularly at the de jure

Choose the right partner and consortium:

  • Most NKP tasks are large and ambitious, and therefore require larger teams and consortiums to be implemented. A good idea would be to choose partners who already have previous experience in leading or participating in NKPs. Lists of winners and PIs for all NKPs approved in 2016 and 2017 are available and openly accessible from the National Service Platform (although information is limited to consortium leaders rather than wider consortium members).
  • At the same time, NKPs have strict limits on the number of government-funded projects that can be implemented at the same time by the proposed PI or sub-topic leaders (including the EU-China Co-Funding Mechanism), as well as on the number of applications that can be submitted to the same National Key R&D Programmes. Make sure that the proposed PI or sub-topic leader is eligible; otherwise the application will automatically be rejected.

Diversification of funds:

  • One of the major changes brought by the 2014 reform of the Chinese STI funding system relates to the inclusion of additional funds in addition to those provided by the central government. A good proposal will therefore include diversified funds from local governments, as well as additional funds provided by the consortium itself; central government funds generally do not exceed one-third of the total project budget. Sometimes this is an explicit requirement in many National Key R&D Programmes, but it is also recommended to follow this approach even if not explicitly required. Certificates of origin of funds must also be submitted as part of the application materials.

Research topic:

  • The more aligned the research proposal is with local or national needs, or the more international competitiveness it has, then the higher the chances of approval will be.
  • Research results and deliverables should be clear, very well-defined, and measurable (e.g. patent filed; new technology developed; a certain market share reached by a newly-developed or commercialised product, etc.).
  • As NKPs’ are aimed at supporting the creation of new technologies, products and equipment in areas for people’s livelihood, the proposed topic should feature strong application, commercialisation and industrialisation prospects. Particular emphasis should be put on matching downstream industries.
  • Take advantage of the high degree of transparency of National Key R&D Programmes: extensively read past tender guidelines to identify trends and evolution of priorities; compare the list of proposals which have passed the first round of evaluation with those which were finally approved, so to identify what type of proposals were rejected and what projects were approved (lists are publicly available from the National Service Platform). Press releases on the implementation status or results achieved under approved projects are also frequently published on MOST’s website (examples here, and here).

Filling the application form:

  • Make sure that the application form when submitting the second official application is in line with and matches the one previously submitted in the pre-application phase:
  • Only minor adjustments are allowed, and generally are limited to increases in KPIs, deliverables, content, facilities or team members. No reductions of what had been originally proposed are allowed.
  • The project budget cannot be higher than that originally proposed in the pre-application.
  • Pay attention to budgetary calculations:
  • Make sure that the scope of each item included the budget proposal is in line with its official definition as outlined in relevant measures, e.g. NKPs Fund Management Measures; and Complementing Implementation Rules.
  • Keep in mind the criteria for the evaluation of budget proposals, as specified in the Complementing Implementation Rules: conformance of expenditure scope and standards with relevant financial regulations; relevance with the NKP’s R&D tasks, objectives and content; rational allocation and distribution
  • Draft budget according to the criteria for evaluation specified in the Complementing Implementation Rules.
  • Make sure that the amount for each item included in the budget proposal is in line with relevant expenditure standards and guidelines outlined by relevant national guidelines and regulations (for instance, travel and accommodation fees); other fees such as purchase of equipment or materials should be strictly in line with real market costs
  • Include and emphasise budget dedicated to resource- and data-sharing.
  • Several additional budget-related tips can be found online, for instance at this link.

Video interview:

  • A concise PPT on the proposal should be submitted before the video interview takes place. Make sure that the PPT is concise and clearly outlines the research methodology, as well as potential risks and measures for their reduction and management

Be proactive:

  • Positively respond to calls for comments on draft tender guidelines regularly published on the National Service Platform, show commitment.
  • Trainings or various information sessions on specific National Key R&D Programmes, or on National Key R&D Programmes in general, are occasionally organised by MOST or professional management agencies. Although procedures for participation are unclear, one should try to attend these.

Full list of currently existing NKPs


Years List of National Key R&D Programmes (NKPs)



Research on stem cells and their conversion


Clean and efficient utilization of coal, and new energy saving technologies


New Energy Vehicles


Public security risk prevention and control and emergency response technologies and equipment


Breeding of seven species (agriculture)


Cloud computing and big data


Industrialisation and technological upgrading of major basic materials


Green building and industrialisation of construction


Research on atmospheric pollution factors and control technologies


Additive and laser manufacturing


Strategic advanced electronic materials


Research on restoration and protection of typical endangered ecosystems


Smart agricultural machinery equipment


Advanced rail traffic


High-performance computing


High-efficient utilization and development of water resources


Technology innovation for the cultivation and highly-efficient utilization of forestry resources


Development of major scientific instruments and equipment


Earth observation and navigation


S&T innovation for increased productivity of food grains


R&D of technologies for prevention and control of animal diseases, and efficient and safe breeding


Materials’ genetic engineering key technologies and support platforms


Regulation and control of protein machines and life processes


R&D of technologies for prevention and restoration of agricultural lands polluted by heavy metals or diffuse sources


Technology and devices for modern food processing, grains storage and transportation




Global changes and response




R&D of biomedical materials, and tissue and organs restoration and transplant


Smart power grid technologies and equipment


R&D of digital diagnosis and treatment equipment


Quantum control and quantum information


Research and application of generic technologies for national quality infrastructure


R&D of technologies for reducing the utilisation and increasing the efficiency of chemical fertilisers and pesticides


Research on precision medicine


Ocean environmental safety safeguarding


Exploration and extraction of deep soil resources


R&D of biosafety key technologies


Research on the prevention and control of major chronic non-communicable diseases


Frontier research on large-scale scientific devices


Deep water key technologies and equipment


Research on reproductive health and the prevention and control of major birth defects





Smart robotics


Monitoring, early warning, and prevention of major natural disasters


R&D and application demonstration of modern service industry’s generic key technologies


R&D of food safety key technologies


Research on the modernisation of traditional Chinese medicine


Key scientific issues of disruptive technologies






S&T innovation in increasing the quality, yield, and industrial quality and efficiency of main cash crops


Formation mechanisms and treatment technologies of sites soil pollution


Synthetic biology


Active health and aging technology solutions


“Blue Granary” S&T innovation


Renewable energy and hydrogen technologies


Nuclear safety and advanced nuclear energy technologies


Comprehensive and smart transportation


Solid waste recycling


Basic technologies and key components for manufacturing


Developmental programme and metabolic regulation


Network integrated manufacturing, and smart factory


Technology and innovation for green, livable towns and villages


Broadband communication and new networks


Optoelectronics and microelectronic devices and integration


Key technologies and demonstration of IoT and smart cities


S&T Winter Olympics