For most of his career, political advisor Zhou Zhonghe has been digging in the dirt or experimenting in labs to try to find the secrets hidden in fossils.[Special coverage]
Zhou, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, is well-known by his international paleontology peers for discovering dozens of new species of fossils that shed light on the origins of bird species.
"Science requires so much concentration that I dream about fossils very often," he said.
Zhou will look beyond his own field when he steps into the Great Hall of the People as a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top political advisory body.
He has called for improvements to evaluation systems to help improve the weak links in basic science research in China at the ongoing first session of the 13th National Committee of the CPPCC in Beijing.
"For quite a long time, the country had been pursuing rapid economic development, which fostered a pragmatic approach to science," he said. "The notions of science and technology have often been confused with one another."
"Science is more about satisfying the innate curiosity of humanity. Basic research usually has no immediate use, but is just an earnest quest to discover the truth," he said.
Over the past two decades, such curiosity and earnestness have led Zhou and his team at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology to a series of astonishing discoveries, which have been widely covered by Western media sources including the BBC, CNN and The Guardian.
Their most famous discoveries include the fossils of primitive birds and feathered dinosaurs which provided solid evidence for the theory that birds descend from dinosaurs.
"Paleontology is among the few basic science fields in which China has been a world leader," Zhou said, adding that this is partly due to China's vast territory, which boasts diversified geological landscapes and rich stores of fossils.
China will strengthen basic research and application-oriented basic research, in an effort to create a country of innovators, Premier Li Keqiang said when delivering a government work report on March 5 at the annual session of the 13th National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature.
A number of major science and technology innovation programs and national laboratories will be launched, according to the report.
"Besides governmental support, it is also important to increase public understanding of basic science, which is critical to the sustained growth and success of the field," Zhou said.
He has been giving lectures on the theory of evolution at various events. "Paleontology can help the public understand that evolution is real, and help remove some misunderstandings about evolutionism," he said.
Members of the CPPCC include many professionals and intellectuals. Among the 2,158 national political advisors, 105 are academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Chinese Academy of Engineering, including experts in fields such as biology, space technology, and quantum communication.
Zhou's concerns have been shared by other scientists at the session.
Political advisor and researcher at National Space Science Center CAS, Wu Ji, suggested that China should undertake more state-organized research to promote achievements in major basic science fields.
"Breakthroughs in basic science are an important barometer of a world leader in science," he said.
Political advisor and CAS geophysicist, Zhu Rixiang, also called for reform in talent evaluation systems to improve basic science.
"The CPPCC session has been an ideal platform for us to voice our concerns and push ahead with reforms," Zhou said.
In January, the State Council issued a guideline that promised more support for basic science, aiming to become a leader in world science and innovation in about 30 years.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Science and Technology, China's financial input in R&D for basic science has doubled from 41.2 billion yuan (about 6.5 billion U.S. dollars) in 2011 to 82.3 billion yuan in 2016.