"A report from the Xinhua News Agency last week said at least 39 reports from auditing authorities over the past three years revealed serious problems of misuse and embezzlement of billions of yuan in scientific research funds in 2007 and 2012."
10/28/13, "Academic Questions," english.peopledaily.com
""I was so stunned, angry and distressed." It is rare to hear such words from a senior Chinese official uttered publicly. China's science minister even repeated the word "angry" early this month to express his anxiety over academic corruption.
What shocked Wan Gang, minister of Ministry of Science and Technology (MST), were two major graft cases that he revealed authorities were now working on at a press conference on October 11. Although Wan didn't give details, he said the cases involved abuse of power and the embezzlement of huge amounts of funds by a well-known environmental scientist and a senior science official.
Last month, former head of the Guangdong Provincial Department of Science and Technology, Li Xinghua, was removed from his post. It is believed that Li's fall was connected to a large number of research projects in the LED industry which were under his control for the past few years, according to Guangzhou-based Time Weekly.
According to a recent national science and technology funds report from the National Bureau of Statistics, China's total annual investment in research and development (R&D) last year exceeded 1 trillion yuan ($164 billion) for the first time and had increased annually by 20 percent over the past five years.
There is no doubt that the Chinese government's generous input shows its firm determination to promote the development of science and technology as a national strategy. In theory, this should allow China to make truly outstanding progress in scientific research. But it is an embarrassing fact that the growing corruption caused by a faulty scientific funding system has become an unexpected obstacle for the country's scientific and technological advancement.
After returning from the US in 1990 as a winner of the Chang Jiang Scholars Program, which was set up by the Ministry of Education to attract outstanding scholars to China, Chen Liangyao became the founding director of the School of Information Science and Engineering at Fudan University. However, over the past two decades, he has not been able to get a single project funded from the National Program on Key Basic Research Projects (973 Program), despite trying every year until his retirement.
The 63-year-old professor told the Global Times that he didn't lose out because of a lack of academic qualifications or sufficient preparations, but because of the irrational application system.
According to Chen, grants for most scientific research projects in China come from the government. More specifically, they come from two sources, the MST and its local branches, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), which was established under the ratification of the State Council.
A report from the NSFC, the major national fund supporting scientific research in China, showed the organization only invested 80 million yuan annually for the entire country's scientific research development when it was established in 1986, but last year, the number had surged to more than 23.6 billion yuan.
In 2012, the NSFC had accepted more than 177,000 applications for project funding nationwide, a 70 percent increase compared to five years ago. Over 38,000 projects were chosen to share 23.6 billion yuan in funds.
But obtaining funds is an incredibly difficult task for Professor Chen from Fudan, who told the Global Times that the process of applying for major national scientific research project funds starts with a key official document named "Guidebook for Applications," which was written by several key experts appointed by the authorities.
On the surface, these guidebooks aim to outline the "major needs of the country" each year, but in fact are specific and narrow descriptions decided by several experts. Chen questioned such a top-down approach, saying it suppresses true innovation and just reflects the "mutual understanding and appreciation among a small number of officials and scientists."
"Knowing who made the guidebook is the key. These projects were designated for someone who had good relations with those key experts and officials," Chen said.
All participants firstly need to submit their applications for the first round of examination and review. This is overseen by a special committee composed of a number of experts whose identities are not known. But Chen claims that only those who have good relations with key people and officials have a chance of entering the second round.
If you are lucky enough to get past the first phase, you will then need to take part in an open debate to justify your project to a group of experts.
"The unreasonable thing is I always found that more than half of the experts at my debate are not really experts in the field that I pitched. The debate requires a high degree of professionalism, and if they can't even understand what I said then how can they be expected to judge my projects fairly?" Chen asked.
Chen said these debates are deceptive because in most cases, experts will only ask some specious questions and echo those few who understood what he said.
"And what really decides the destiny of the project is beyond the debate itself," Chen said.
According to related disciplinary policies, information about the experts on the project review committee is supposed to be classified. Applicants are not supposed to know the members' identities until the day of the debate. But in fact, committee members will always get a strange phone call or message from someone offering to do them favors in return for a favorable review.
Chen himself had such an experience. "I got an anonymous text message as soon as I arrived in the city when I attended a debate as a committee member. Only MST had this information, and I can't help thinking how they got it."
At the third and last round of the review, a group of highly-regarded academicians from different fields gather to make a final decision. In fact, any project that makes it into the last round rarely fails. Chen says it is just about going through the motions.
What's worse, some senior officials of MST who are in charge of large amounts of funds also apply for research projects despite the obvious conflict of interests. It is not difficult to predict the results of such cases.
Chen was so angry about the fact that many research teams less qualified than his repeatedly won grants that he posted his experiences and questions on his blog under his real name. Although most people applauded his courage, as a consequence, his applications have never passed the first round of review since.
Chen is not alone in his opinions. In 2010, Shi Yigong, director of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University and Rao Yi, director of School of Life Sciences at Peking University, both returned from the US, published an editorial article criticizing China's problematic scientific research fund application and review mechanism in Science, one of the world's top scientific journals.
"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 favorite experts," the article said.
It concluded that although most Chinese scientists complained about this defective application and distribution system in public, the vast majority of them choose to accept it.
"A signiﬁcant proportion of researchers in China spend too much time on building connections and not enough time attending seminars, discussing science, doing research, or training students (instead, using them as laborers in their laboratories). Most are too busy to be found in their own institutions. Some become part of the problem: They use connections to judge grant applicants and undervalue scientiﬁc merit," the article said.
When such a corrupting culture is formed, it creates a crisis where scientific funds may be misused or embezzled when some people who have no interest in pursuing science have control over large amounts of money, and it can be no surprise to see corruption grow.
A nationwide survey conducted by the China Association for Science and Technology published in 2004 said that only 40 percent of research funds were spent on R&D. The claim is backed by Guangzhou Vice Mayor Wang Dong, who revealed at a press conference on July 31 that the other 60 percent is actually used for activities such as meetings and travel.
A report from the Xinhua News Agency last week said at least 39 reports from auditing authorities over the past three years revealed serious problems of misuse and embezzlement of billions of yuan in scientific research funds in 2007 and 2012.
The report concluded that some of the most common methods of embezzling funds included paying benefits to staff members, which is not allowed in China; organizing recreational activities; and purchasing properties or cars for private use.
Chen from Fudan told the Global Times that scientific research funds can mostly be divided into "vertical" and "horizontal" parts, based on their source. The former mostly comes directly from government-backed funds, which have to go through the school's financing and auditing systems, making it less likely for them to be misused.
But the latter type of funding usually comes from government entrusted enterprises, and functions as a product of jointly developed projects between enterprises and schools, leaving room for profiting from lax supervision.
"In some projects, enterprises promise the project leaders that they can use as much as 20 to 40 percent of the funds for their own purposes," Chen said.
Time to act
Minister Wan Gang said at the news conference on October 11 that authorities had realized the significance of the problem and the key to fighting corruption is strengthening information transparency and public supervision.
Wan said the ministry is now working with other departments to build a unified platform to openly share all information related to scientific institutions that receive funds as well as their project application content and research results. This will ensure that his colleagues and related parties can supervise the process and prevent underhand operations.
However, Wang Pingxian, Professor of Marine Geology at Tongji University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the Global Times that corruption in scientific research funds was not only due to a failure in the management system, but also the result of a collective moral decline in Chinese society today.
"Science used to be thought of as one of the few clean sectors left in society. In the past, scientists always acted as if they were morally better than other people, but now it has changed. Maybe we should think about whether we are focusing too much on the productive forces science can bring us and ignoring the humanity side of science, which urges us to follow some basic moral codes. And if we fail to stand for that, the result will be really terrible," Wang said." via Free Rep.
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