The National Natural Science Fund is China’s largest fund for supporting basic research and applied research in natural sciences, particularly in the fields of physics and mathematics; chemistry; life sciences; earth sciences; engineering and materials; information sciences; and management sciences.
The Fund is administered by the Natural Science Foundation of China (“NSFC”), which was founded in 1986 under the State Council, and now under the supervision of MOST. The NSFC, which has a strong reputation of fairness and rigor in the management of scientific projects and grants, is responsible for directing, coordinating and making effective use of the National Natural Science Fund while stimulating free exploration, identifying and fostering scientific talents and teams, and promoting science and technology development in line with the country’s strategies and needs.
National Natural Science Fund
2019 programmes and application
The 2019 annual project guidelines cover 14 different programmes, grouped under three categories: research promotion; talents fostering; and research environment. Each programme has its own specific research topics, priorities, and requirements for application. More details can be found on the NSFC website (link below).
Among these programmes, the most significant for European actors are:
- General Programme: supporting researchers to conduct innovative explorative research on open topics within certain areas. The average funding per project is 500k-600k RMB.
- Young Scientist Fund: similar to the General Programme, but exclusively targeting young scientists. The average funding per project is 200k-250k RMB per project.
- Key Programme: medium-sized projects supporting prospective and frontier studies to achieve major breakthroughs in priority industries and technologies. The average funding per project is 2.5-3 million RMB.
- Major Research Plan: medium- and large-sized projects of strategic value to economic and social development in national priority areas, featuring a strong top-down design.
- International (Regional) Cooperation and Exchange Programmes: supporting joint research with top researchers and institutions world-wide. It is divided into three sub-groups of projects, one of which targets exclusively international young scientists (see below for more details).
Vary depending on the specific programme.
Nearly the totality of the NSFC programmes target registered China-based actors, meaning that China-based affiliates of European institutes and European scientists working in China can apply too. Extensive evidence of European participation was identified especially within the General Programme and the Young Scientist Fund, and on a lesser extent within the Key Programme and the Major Research Plan.
In addition, one of the NSFC programmes targets exclusively international cooperation. Specifically, the International (Regional) Cooperation and Exchange Programme is designed to support joint research and exchanges between Chinese scientists and top researchers and institutions around the world. The Programme is divided into three main sub-programmes, each targeting different actors and serving different purposes:
- Key International (Regional) Joint Research Projects: encouraging and supporting innovative China-based researchers to conduct basic research in priority areas in cooperation with international research structures and scientists based abroad.
- International (Regional) Cooperation and Exchange Programmes under framework agreements: encouraging and supporting excellent Chinese scientists to conduct joint research in the partner’s country and facility, or to organise international conferences in China or abroad (note: the NSFC currently has framework agreements with 86 institutions in 44 countries worldwide, including with 17 EU Member States, the EU Commission’s Directorate-General for Research, the European Research Council, CERN, as well as international organisations based in Europe).
- Research Fund for International Young Scientists: encouraging excellent international young scientists based abroad to come to mainland China to conduct basic research in natural sciences. The aim is to promote sustainable academic collaboration and exchanges between Chinese scholars and foreign young scientists (note: new calls for applications are published every year in the NSFC annual project guidelines. An English version of the guidelines is also usually published: see latest example at this link).
Date of publication
29 December 2020
How to apply
The programmes included in the NSFC annual guidelines follow a “centralised application” mechanism, namely all applications must be submitted by 20 March 2020. Applications must be submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) through the NSFC’s system, but must be pre-examined and pre-approved by the institution to which the PI is affiliated (“host institution”, or yituo danwei). This often means that applications are expected to be completed by the PI way before the deadline indicated in the annual project guidelines, as host institutions often stipulate their own internal deadlines to which any affiliated PIs must abide by.
Note: An official account must be created by the applicant PI on the NSFC’s Internet-based Science Information System through his/her host institution. The host institution will be able to generate for the PI an username and activation link only if it has previously registered on the same system.
1 - 20 March 2020
Original link in Chinese (copy-paste into browser)
Dedicated factsheet on the National Natural Science Fund, including specific key management framework and case studies on selected programmes.
- National Natural Science Fund