Defying Critics, China’s Science Ministry Defends Research Culture

In a 3 September editorial in Science, two prominent Chinese scientists alleged that China’s mega-science funding system is corrupt and antithetical to innovation. The Chinese scientific establishment has at last issued a public response. On Monday, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) issued a sharp rebuttal that claims the editorial’s assertions “are contrary to facts” and highlights a slew of recent Chinese-born S&T advances.

In the editorial, Shi Yigong, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Rao Yi, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University in Beijing, singled out for criticism the funding mechanism for mega science projects in China, alleging that to procure grants, “it’s an open secret that doing good research is not as important as schmoozing with powerful bureaucrats and their favorite experts.” They said a societal dependence on interpersonal connections instead of rules for conducting business is partly to blame and called for the creation of a “healthy research culture” such that “new funds are distributed based on merit.”

The editorial caused a big stir in China and even came to the attention of Premier Wen Jiabao, who, according to sources, asked relevant ministries to come up with specific suggestions for reforming the funding system. Rank-and-file researchers, as well as some scientific leaders, also voiced support. Earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the Chinese Association of Science and Technology in Fuzhou, CAST President Han Qide quoted from the editorial and said that the country should “solve some of the problems by systemic reform.”

MOST’s statement echoes a speech reported in Chinese media today that science minister Wan Gang had given over the weekend at an innovation forum in Shanghai. Wan said “to seize upon isolated problems and say our country’s science and technology system is rotten is something with which I do not agree. To say so is unfair to the struggles and efforts of our sci-tech workers.” The speech and statement both rattled off achievements in agriculture, information technology, materials, energy, population and health, resources, and the environment as evidence that the ministry’s basic science program, according to the statement, “has solved a host of major sci-tech problems and provided important sci-tech support for economic and social development.”

Rao says he was surprised by MOST’s response, which he says appears aimed to counter him and Shi personally rather than to address systemic problems recognized by most Chinese scientists. “We did not reveal anything new in our article but restated publicly what is commonly known in China,” says Rao, adding that MOST’s rebuttal did not point out any errors in their editorial. Reactions in the Chinese blogosphere to the ministry’s statement are largely critical. Close to 98% of those who answered a survey on regarding research funding mechanism voted for “urgent need for reform,” while 2% voted for “no need for reform.” (The survey was at the end of this report.)