From where I sit - When it's who, not what, you know

December 16, 2010

When professors Rao Yi and Shi Yigong claimed in a recent issue of Science that cronyism was blighting China's research culture, a spokesman for the Ministry of Science and Technology was quick to claim that they had got their facts wrong. But the pair appear to have gained wide support from Chinese scholars and the media.

Professor Rao is dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University, and Professor Shi holds the same position at Tsinghua University. Both returned to China from leading institutions in North America to join China's two most prestigious universities.

The scholars claimed that "to obtain major grants in China, it is an open secret that doing good research is not as important as schmoozing with powerful bureaucrats and their favourite experts". The ministry spokesman countered that China has adopted international standards, setting up a committee of experts in various disciplines to fully participate in planning, establishing, evaluating, inspecting and accepting major research projects.

The spokesman pointed out that both professors Rao and Shi have undertaken major research projects and "are fully supported in terms of funding and logistics".

In a recent opinion piece in China Youth Daily, Yang Yuze, an editor with Yangtze Daily, commented that the ministry is sending out a strange message - implying that since the two men belong to a group with vested interests in research funding, they should remain silent partners in the system that benefits them.

But the counter-argument is that since they are insiders, their critical comments are likely to be as valuable as they are accurate.

Indeed, as early as 2004, Professor Rao made a call, via an article in Nature, for reform of China's funding system for research projects. He proposed transforming the Ministry of Science and Technology into a policymaking and coordination body, while leaving the detailed funding-management role to other institutions, such as the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

In an interview with China Youth Daily, Professor Shi complained that the morning after he had been asked to join an evaluation meeting for a major research project, he received text messages from six strangers, all seeking to influence his deliberations.

He wondered how those scholars knew so quickly that he would evaluate the project, and also how they had obtained his mobile phone number.

In a column in the Oriental Morning Post, Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of Shanghai Jiao Tong University's 21st Century Education Research Institute, proposed that the National People's Congress establish an independent investigation into the concerns raised by professors Rao and Shi, and suggested that cronyism was widespread.

In October, the Ministry of Science and Technology made public a list of recently established major research projects. Professor Xiong noted that of the 63 projects undertaken by universities, the chief scientists for 16 of them were university presidents, deputy presidents or assistant presidents. Ministry rules stipulate that chief scientists must guarantee that they dedicate 70 per cent of their working hours to the projects.

Professor Xiong argued that it would be impossible for senior administrators to make such a commitment, and that if this were the case, the 16 grants should be subject to an independent investigation.

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