2006:Corruption in Chinese Science and Education

6/9/2006 Science  Magazine on Corruption in Chinese Science

Science magazine on June 9, 2006 ran a fine article on corruption in Chinese science. Only thing I would add is that the cause of the problem — the top-down system, planned economy thinking and political interference that hinder effective peer review, recognition of the best work, optimal allocation of funding for science, and effective punishment and prevention of fraud — are rooted in the political system. The problem can’t be solved only within science.

Some progress could be made by abolishing say, the Ministry of Science and Technology, letting the National Natural Science Foundation of China type organizations handle funding (a real dinosaur vs. mammal pair,  on colleague often talked about the dinosaurs and mammals of Chinese science back in the mid 1990s.) and the rise of a generation of senior scientists who can make stick some better judgements on scientific quality.

The lack of training during the Cultural Revolution deprived China of the people who would have been the senior scientists of today. But these reforms can’t address the root of the problem in the political system. On could even go deeper and talk about political culture, since I suspect even democracy activists unconsciously have a commie model of democratic organization in the back of their heads… so it’ll take a while.

Here are the first few paragraphs of a 1999 Embassy Beijing report on peer review in China.  The full text is on the Internet Archive at the link below.

Breaking The PRC Iron Test Tube: Peer Review And The National Natural Science Foundation Of China

A May 1999 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: In China, the peer review of limited-term scientific research grants has over the past decade been slowly replacing the low productivity, wasteful “iron test tube” system. The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NNSFC), the leading funding agency for basic science in China, and an increasing number of other agencies award basic science grants through peer review. U.S. NSF Director Rita Colwell visited NNSFC last Fall and Dr. Gerald Keush, Associate Director for International Cooperation at NIH visited NNSFC in March 1999 to discuss opportunities for Sino-American scientific and biomedical cooperation. This report presents an overview of the NNSFC and discusses the critical importance of peer review in boosting the very low return on investments in Chinese science. Other problems which keep down the productivity of Chinese science include systematic underinvestment in science and technology arising from poor IPR protection which sharply lowers returns on investment as well as waste, corruption and misdirection of resources regularly denounced by Chinese leaders and illustrated in the appended recent Chinese press report.

Peer Reviewed Grants A Steadily Growing Proportion of Total Scientific Funding

Peer review by funding organizations such as the National Science Foundation of China over the past decade has improved the effectiveness of science funding and raised the quality of Chinese science. The NNSFC now funds 16 percent of the 20,000 grant applications it receives each year from its annual budget of RMB 800 million (USD 100 million) which has increased nearly 20 percent annually since the founding of the NNSFC ten years ago. NNSFC now awards more research grants on a competitive basic than does the Ministry of Science and Technology which awards RMB 500 million annually. NNSFC grants often serve as seed money attesting to the quality of a project. Local government money often follows thereafter. The Chinese leadership set the goal of total (central and local government) Chinese spending on basic and applied research to reach 1.5 percent of GDP by the year 2000. NNSFC spending is a small but growing fraction of that amount. The NNSFC website (in Chinese) is at http://www.nsfc.gov.cn

NNSFC Grants: No Overhead, Grants for Young Scientists

Shielded from government-wide funding costs, the NNSFC’s budget is becoming an increasingly large part of China’s basic research spending. Grants include neither overhead nor salary but are dedicated to direct research costs. The Chinese government calls for spending on basic research and applied research to total 1.5 percent of GDP by the year 2000. Three types of programs: young scientist, building science in the developing regions of China and new high tech concepts account for 80 percent of the NNSFC budget. The young scientist program also provides for short-term (up to six months) training overseas and for the support of visiting foreign scientists….

The first few paragraphs of the Science article are copied below. Look for the rest of the story in Science behind its pay wall if your institution has access. Alternatively, try the  Research Gate link which also has some useful comments on the article and the topic.  .
Science 9 June 2006:
Vol. 312. no. 5779, pp. 1464 – 1466
News Focus
SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT:Scandals Shake Chinese Science
Hao Xin*
A spate of misconduct cases may force China’s scientific leaders to clean house or watch their drive for a more innovative society sputter
For more than a decade, the Chinese government has been heaping money and prestige on its academic community in a bid to gain ground in a global technological race. In this scientific Wild East, an unprecedented number of researchers stand accused of cheating–from fudging résumés to fabricating data–to gain fame or plum positions. Buffeted by scandals and an urgent appeal for action from expatriate scientists, top scientific leaders now acknowledge the need for change in a system notorious for its high expectations and scant oversight. “Too many incentives have blurred the reasons for doing science in some people’s minds,” Lu Yongxiang, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), told Science. “We need to improve our evaluation and assessment system to establish a better culture for R&D innovation.”
The central government is taking the first tentative swipes at what will amount to a Herculean task. For starters, the Ministry of Education (MOE), which funds and oversees the nation’s universities, last month issued ethics guidelines and formed a panel to police conduct in the social sciences. “Though it is difficult to ascertain the number of misconduct cases, the negative impact of these cases should not be underestimated,” says MOE spokesperson Wang Xuming. CAS, adds Lu, “will do its best to improve oversight. Monitoring by society is also needed.” Xu Guanhua, minister of science and technology, told Chinese reporters in March that “if academic corruption exists, then we will investigate every single case, thoroughly.” That pledge notwithstanding, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), with one of the largest portfolios, has not yet revealed how it plans to crack down on misconduct.
Back to basics. Incentives have “blurred the reasons for doing science,” says academy president Lu Yongxiang.
Part of the challenge, observers say, is that science in China is acutely susceptible to influence peddling. Only a small percentage of R&D funding is awarded after Western-style peer review. Success often depends more on how well a scientist cultivates support from grant managers and politicians than on the quality of research.
In a milieu of unhealthy relationships, some question whether the government has the resolve to police the scientific community strictly. “Many leaders shield misconduct; this is a serious problem,” says Chen-lu Tsou, a biophysicist at CAS’s Institute of Biophysics. Adds Liu Jixing, a retired physicist, “Without fundamental changes, we won’t be able to buck the trend of academic corruption.”

2006: Corruption, Breakneck Growth Trouble PRC Science and Education

The 2005 PRC Statistical Yearbook shows that PRC undergraduate enrollments have increased at about a 15% a year annual pace from 1985 to the present except for an understandable paused during 1988 – 1991. It started with small numbers of course, but by the mid 1990s, a 15% increase meant a very large increase in actual numbers of students enrolled. Since mid 1999, graduate enrollments in master’s and PhD programs increased at 30 percent annually! A professor I met last year in Chengdu told me he had a friend, a professor at Sichuan University (now a consolidated school and much larger as a result of the post 1998 school merger wave) actually has 100 doctoral students. I wonder how that compares with the US professoriat’s flocks of acolytes — are the Chinese making a great leap forward in the production of PhDs? The professor told me that the situation was becoming impossible with so many doctoral students.

In mid March 2006, China Newsweek 中国新闻周刊 did a cover story “SARS-like Corruption in Higher Education”  中国新闻周刊第268期:高校的非典型腐败  detailing u43p4t8d703471f107dt20060315171339chronic and serious academic corruption. One of the most interesting articles pointed out how graduate students need to publish articles in core journals in order to get their degree and academics must publish articles in core journals in order to get promoted. But the number of journals and their size has been increasing only slowly, far more slowly than the number of academics. One result is bribery and intense pressure on editors. Sometimes journals are counterfeited with the counterfeiters journal article replacing one of the real ones so the counterfeiter can get credit for a publication.

The PRC website Academic Criticism has many illuminating articles on the problems of the academic system in China including chronic corruption before the Chinese authorities closed it down.

A superb book on the weaknesses of the Chinese academic evaluation system Criticism of the Academic Evaluation System 学术评价制度批判 by Professor Liu Ming 刘明 of the 9136401-1_uZhejiang Administration Academy and Zhejiang University can be purchased online. William H. A. Johnson also discussed this issue and Liu Ming’s book in his own 2015 book  Innovation in China: The Tail of the Dragon.

Liu Ming argues that the lack of reliable qualitative evaluations pushes the universities and Chinese science to rely overmuch on quantitative indicators. The accent on quantitative indicators to the exclusion of qualitative indicators such as reputation and peer review of work quality not to mention professorial teaching has very negative effects on the quality of science, on academic promotions and the quality of higher education being received by the rising generation of students.

I see this as an issues that goes much deeper than academic corruption. If the peer evaluation system that China has been transplanting from the West cannot function well, the effectiveness of China’s funding of its scientists and universities would have to be much less. The fundamental principle of peer review is to push decisions on funding specific research project down to the level of working scientists in a field who can make the best judgement on quality. Liu writes that while peer review works reasonably well on small projects in China, for medium and large sized projects it works very poorly because of the interference of administrators and government and Party officials.

Chinese science will of course continue to advance given the large investments, but I think it will be running well below its long term potential if it doesn’t improve peer review to better identify and support the best scientists and academics.

Liu Ming’s book  学术评价制度批判 is available on Dangdang.com at http://product.dangdang.com/9136401.html?ref=book-02-L


About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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