Technological innovation is like a huge engine, which is driving this half decade to expand the depth and breadth of time and space. Going to Mars to explore a new frontier, as well as bringing minerals from the Moon, are daunting tasks that await us in the short term. The development needs of human society are understood and hope is sown of even exploring the possibility of civilisations far away from us in the Universe.

In 1992, the People’s Republic of China established a three-stage strategy for the engineering of manned space flight, for which the construction of a space station was an important goal. Twenty-nine years later, on April 29, 2021, the Tianhe core module of the Chinese Space Station was successfully launched, thus marking the full success of orbital assembly and space station construction.

Tianhe is the core module that was the first one launched for the Tiangong space station. It was placed in orbit on the aforementioned date as the initial launch of the final phase of the programme by the China Manned Space Agency.

In 2021 six astronauts went to the space station. On June 17 the crew of Shenzhou 12, namely Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, left for the space station. On October 16, Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu, from Shenzhou 13, became the second group of residents at Tiangong.

The fact of being in one’s own space station does not only mean to look up and admire the beauty of creation, but also to meditate on mankind’s future destiny.

On May 15, 2021, China’s first Mars exploration mission, namely the Tianwen-1 probe, successfully landed in the southern part of Utopia Planitia. After the news was confirmed, Zhang Rongqiao (chief designer of the mission’s project), Sun Zezhou (chief designer of the Tianwen-1 survey system), and He Rongwei (commander-in-chief of the survey system), hugged and were moved to tears along with the vast majority of the ground staff.

People on Earth have always been looking for new solutions to try to survive. Some people believe that sooner or later we will emigrate to space. As a planet with many similarities to Earth, mankind has high hopes for Mars.

Is Mars really the future of Earth? We need to go there to find out.

Mars, however, is very far away. Tianwen-1 travelled along the Hohmann orbit in the vast and deep space and it took more than seven months for the probe to reach Mars orbit. Furthermore, a Mars probe must be able to handle and manage itself, as it loses contact with the Earth for about seven minutes during the process of leaving orbit and landing, and can only “land blindly”, i.e. with special evaluation software. This is also the key to the success or failure of exploration missions to that planet. Most of the Mars probes previously launched by countries have failed there.

On December 16, 2020, the Chang’e-5 probe successfully returned from the Moon. Thanks to the samples collected and findings, Chinese scientists have solved part of the mystery of Moon’s life. On October 19, 2021, the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Astronomical Observatory of that Academy, together with many research institutes, drafted academic articles on related research, which were published in the prestigious international journal “Nature”. The study found that the Moon’s magma activity had continued until about two billion years ago, meaning that the Moon’s lifespan was extended by about 800 million years longer than previously estimated. This conclusion bridges the gap in human understanding of the evolutionary history of Moon’s years. The research object of this success is a small amount of blackish dust that appears inconspicuous. That pinch of lunar soil was not easy to find.

The Chang’e Moon exploration project was launched in 2004 and is divided into three phases: head to, land and return. In 2020 Chang’e-5 – a robotic Moon exploration mission that started on November 23 – landed on December 1 near Mons Rümker, in the north-west of Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms). It completed its first celestial body recovery mission by retrieving one kilogram and 731 grams of lunar soil. In the end, Chinese scientists lived up to expectations and provided mankind with a little more insight into the evolution of the universe.

With regard to the ongoing successes of Chinese science, it is worth noting the significance of the opening of the 20th Conference of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the 15th Conference of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Science and Technology Association in Beijing on May 28, 2021.

General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a fundamental speech at the opening session, in which he emphasised that China’s broadest scientific and technological players should take on the heavy responsibility entrusted by the times and strive to achieve a high level of scientific and technological self-reliance, mutual trust and self-improvement.

The Fifth Plenary Session of the Nineteenth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), convened earlier, had proposed to commit to scientific and technological self-reliance as a strategic support for national development.

Technological innovation has currently become the main battleground of international scenarios, and the competition around the top leadership of science and technology is unprecedented. The aim of the Conferences was to achieve a higher level of quality.

The Conferences outlined specific requirements on five aspects: 1. strengthening originality; 2. enhancing the national strategic scientific and technological strength; 3. promoting the reform of the scientific and technological system; 4. building an ecology of innovation; 5. stimulating the innovative vitality of various talents.

Science and technology research should adhere to the orientation of the problem and focus on the most pressing issues, while scientists should not waste time on ceremonial activities and welcome and reception events, as there are people entrusted to do so, and should avoid other events that cause major repercussions in the technological and scientific community.

At the same time, further progress needs to be made in the key technologies of oil and natural gas; basic raw materials; industrial software; seeds; methods to improve the performance of tools and equipment for scientific tests, chemical preparations, etc. Therefore, a clear statement of intent was therefore sent to people in science and technology circles inside and outside these conferences.

It is worth remembering that strengthening basic research is an inevitable requirement for technological improvement. If progress is to be made in the above areas, the spirit of “sharpening a sword in ten years” is essential. The 2020 National Science and Technology Awards announced in November 2021 show that the average research time of the winning projects is 11.9 years, of which almost 40 per cent is 10-15 years.

Last year a clear call was made for the People’s Republic of China to march towards the goals of its second centenary. If science and technology are established as primary goals, the country will be more stable, and if science and technology are strong, the State will be strong.

This means that today, both at the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (an organisation directly affiliated to the State Council) and at other departments, we do not always find an excellent conduct record. This is because meritocracy in supervision in the field of science and technology is becoming increasingly selective and academic misconduct is regularly subjected to severe criticism.

The 2021 National Science and Technology Work Conference held earlier this year conveyed a message to strengthen the construction of the work and study style for more supervision. During the meeting, Wang Zhigang, Minister of Science and Technology, proposed to build a large-scale supervision model and have zero tolerance for those who do not behave properly and constructively.

In August 2021, the Ministry of Science and Technology, together with the member units of the Joint Conference on Building Integrity in Scientific Research, established a reporting mechanism for cases of unworthy behaviour and publicly notified the results of the investigation.

Besides the intuitive feeling that the frequency of notifications has increased significantly, the intensity of investigations and sanctions is also impressive. For example, in the investigation and handling of the results of some medical research integrity investigations, made by some educational and medical institutions and issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology on December 17, 2021, some people had their PhDs revoked. Some were removed from teaching positions, while others, including associate professors, head physicians and other professionals, were dismissed. Other citizens were dismissed as a result of the cancellation of their postgraduate tutor qualifications.

The academic circles are the subject of hot debates and the investigation and sanctioning of academic misconduct are real.

Indeed, the notification is meant to serve as a warning, so as to lead most scientific researchers to consciously adhere to the basic policy line of integrity and abide by academic and research ethics, as well as practice proper academic standards. At the same time, it is noted that there is still a long way to go to correct academic negligence. In view of maintaining high quality standards for academics and the scholars’ original dignity, concerted efforts of the academic community are needed so that credibility remains intact and results are high.

The integrity of scientific research is the cornerstone of scientific and technological innovation. Without sufficient integrity, innovation becomes impossible and research suffers scientifically, as it is a work of conscience.

As a Chinese saying goes, “The money you spend on soy sauce can be used to make vinegar”. It means that it is particularly necessary for scientific research work not to rely on instant inspiration, random approach, chance and uncertainty of the pathway to follow.

More benefits for researchers are also needed to stimulate innovation. Since the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, the Central Committee and the State Council have issued a series of measures to optimise the management of scientific research funds. These are policy documents and reform measures. In terms of managing scientific research funding, however, there are still problems such as inadequate implementation of policies; strict management of project funding; imperfect funding mechanism; low percentage of indirect costs, and difficulty in repaying funding.

Further documents (“Various Opinions on Reforming and Improving the Management of Central Financial Research Funds”), issued in August 2021, provided an unprecedented institutional guarantee for solving these problems.

In response to the reflection “whether money for the purchase of soy sauce can be used to make vinegar”, the “Various Opinions” suggested to streamline and simplify budget preparation. In addition to the cost of equipment, e.g. over 500,000 yuan, other costs only envisage basic calculation instructions and no details are required. This means decentralising the budget adjustment power – i.e. all the equipment cost is delegated to the project enterprise unit, and all the other cost adjustment rights, with the exception of the equipment cost, are delegated to the project leader by the project enterprise unit. The scope of implementation of the budget contract system is also extended for talents and foundations. Research projects are no longer subject to project budgets.

In response to problems such as insufficient incentives for scientific researchers, the “Various Opinions” propose to increase the share of indirect costs and the project enterprise unit may use all indirect costs for performance expenses and favour teams and individuals with outstanding innovative performance. According to the specific share suggested in the paper, some researchers estimate that in the future “the cost of ‘people’ in scientific research project funds may exceed 50 per cent”.

These steps have been made necessary because, with the “slackening” that has been going on over the past few years, it has been easy for some scientific researchers to go off on their own with their dreams, i.e. to go into battle lightly. This has meant that less progress has been made on the road to building a powerful country in the field of science and technology.

If we want to take the road to Mars, we must first know China’s roads.

Giancarlo Elia Valori