China wants to lead the world in science innovation and research, so last week they announced plans to expand the power of the country's science and technology ministry (MOST).

The bulked-up agency, which was officially announced at the National People's Congress in Beijing, will continue to oversee science policy and major science projects.

In addition, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), which used to deal with the majority of grants, will now be merged with the new and improved agency. As such, one of the agency's new roles will be handing out research grants to tempt foreign scientists.

Conservationists are particularly excited by the new agency. As part of the changes, the government has announced a new ministry of ecological environment, which will keep tabs on pollution and enforce environmental protection laws, and a new conservation agency, which will help protect endangered species in China.

The new ministries will hopefully help streamline the current environmental initiatives in China, which are a bit of a mess.

Right now, for instance, the agriculture ministry manages the country's vast grasslands, but the State Forestry Administrations is the one that handles the actual wildlife on the grasslands.

"It's one ecosystem. [It] needs to be addressed as a whole," said Zhang Li, a conservation biologist at Beijing Normal University.

All in all, the government has announced more than 15 ministries and agencies will be merged, restructured or even eliminated because of the new plan.

While the changes appear to be a sign of progress, some scientists are worried that the rearrangement could potentially weaken support for basic research in China, which, they say, is already quite low.

Scientists in China have long criticized the ministry for supporting projects on the basis of political and personal connections. With the new reshuffle, scientists are worried their ability to get grants based on merit or expert advice could be much harder.

"Placing NSFC under MOST is likely to complicate these missions," said Cao Cong, a science-policy researcher at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China, He said the changes were kept in the dark until the last minute.

While people like Cong are worried that the NSFC will lose control and influence over basic-research funding, the NSFC's new head Li Jinghai has assured scientists that the State Council has promised more money for basic science.

"I am sure that basic science in China will be further strengthened," Jinghai said.

One member of the National People's Congress, Wang Yifang, is especially excited by the changes. Yifang, who is the director of the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, has often spoken out against the country's current grant system.

Instead, he wants China to adopt a grant system more similar to the US, where small groups of experts decide which projects are the best.

Yifang believes this can happen "if MOST and NSFC both behave correctly".

The report was published in Nature.

Science AF is ScienceAlert's new editorial section where we explore society's most complex problems using science, sanity and humor.