The decades-long reform of China's science and technology system has repeatedly ignited a critical question about the position of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). The academy's early contributions to China's strategic weapons programs, and indeed, to China's nation-building efforts, have left a legacy that partly mirrors the development of Chinese science but is almost impossible to replicate. But the CAS has been under enormous pressure to reinvent itself by producing original and more visible outcomes to justify its existence as the most prominent research institution in China. We discuss major challenges faced by the CAS and the antecedents of its current reform, a reshuffling of its 100-plus research institutes under a new Pioneer Initiative (1). By concentrating resources on big-science centers managing large-scale research infrastructures (RIs), CAS may be able to enhance its uniqueness and strategic importance among China's many research institutions and to potentially bolster its future.
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