New Head of China's NSF Speaks Out

Reaching out. New NSFC chief Yang Wei, meeting with students.

Lu Shaoqing, Courtesy of Yang Wei

In 1984, as a graduate student at Brown University, Yang Wei took a course in materials science taught by a new assistant professor. Even though the professor, Subra Suresh, was 2 years younger than the student, he has since become a kind of a role model for Yang, who last month took the helm of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). Yang points to Suresh, who is about to step down as director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), as an example of an engineer who has successfully led a science funding agency. As China's equivalent to NSF, NSFC disbursed $2.8 billion last year through peer-reviewed grants and programs to support basic research, young talents, and facilities.

Yang received his Ph.D. at age 31 from Brown's School of Engineering. Like that of many of his generation, Yang's education was delayed by China's Cultural Revolution. In the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, Mao Zedong sent urban youth to the countryside to learn from farmers. Yang was 14 when he went to Yan'an, Mao's revolutionary base during the anti-Japanese war. "We spent our teenage years doing hard work and learning about real life," Yang says. He taught himself high school material while working on a farm near Yan'an, studied in an engineering college in Xi'an as a worker-farmer-soldier trainee, and was among the first to pursue a graduate degree in post-Mao China. "We had determination, we had dreams, and we knew how to achieve our dreams, step by step," Yang says.

In his first interview with the press since becoming NSFC president on 22 February, Yang talked to Science about plans to improve NSFC's grant management, strengthen academic integrity, and stamp out misconduct.

Q: During the 9 years under your predecessor, biologist Chen Yiyu, NSFC's budget increased nearly sevenfold. How do you plan to convince the central government to continue investing at such levels?

Y.W.: We expect double-digit budget growth for the next 5 years. Although increases will be less dramatic than in the past 9 years, we still anticipate growth rates higher than China's GDP [gross domestic product] growth rate [forecast to be 7.5% in 2013].

The current budget is only about 40% of that of the U.S. National Science Foundation. Consider that we do not have the equivalent of the U.S. NIH [National Institutes of Health] in China; the NSFC's division of life sciences takes up about one-third of our total budget, and this division alone has to compete with the NIH, which has a budget of $20 billion. By this comparison, NSFC's budget is much less than the total funding for basic sciences in the U.S. China's 2012 GDP was about half of the United States'; China's total societal expenditure on R&D, at about $165 billion last year, is also about half of the U.S.'s. Both these ratios are higher than NSFC's budget as compared with U.S. funding for basic sciences.

China has to transition from an economic powerhouse to a technological powerhouse and then to a scientific and cultural powerhouse. To achieve this goal, we will need many scientists, and we need to convince the government that it should provide more funding to the NSFC.

Q: What measures are NSFC putting into place to promote research integrity and reduce misconduct in grant application and review of proposals?

Y.W.: NSFC authorizes an independent committee to supervise research integrity. The committee received about 200 misconduct allegations each year in the last 3 years. Considering that over the same period there was a 16% increase of research proposals submitted, the number of allegations vis-à-vis proposals was slightly reduced. Last year, the committee found 19 out of about 200 allegations to be misconduct cases, about 10% of all allegations.

The committee has identified five categories of misconduct. The first is inflation of credentials. For example, an investigator expecting his doctorate in June uses the designation Ph.D. on a grant proposal submitted in March. Also, sometimes, signatures of collaborators are forged to inflate the scope of the project. This is the largest category. We have developed training material to warn people of this kind of misconduct. We also hold institutions responsible because they have the obligations to educate new researchers on good conduct when writing proposals.

The second category is plagiarism. Some copy from their own past proposals, and some copy others' proposals. We are using software to crosscheck newly submitted proposals against our archive of 5 to 10 years of old proposals.

The third category is program managers choosing reviewers in favor of applicants with whom they have good relations. Some reviewers are known to be hard; some are relatively soft. Program managers may choose soft reviewers for their friends. We are thinking about how to address this issue. For instance, we are establishing a database of reviewers with their average review scores. A program manager may select seven to 10 reviewers for one particular proposal. The system will calculate the average score from the reviewers. If the score is very high, then perhaps it indicates that a group of very soft reviewers were chosen. If the average score is very low, then perhaps a group of very hard reviewers are chosen. We can establish some margins and if the reviewer score is outside the margins, we will pay more attention to those proposals.

The fourth category is leakage of review information. My colleagues have told me about frequent visits to our database, which contains all proposal-related information. We are thinking about an alert mechanism, which will flag unusually frequent database visits and keep track of logons and accesses to the information system.

The last category is fabricated progress reports for NSFC grants.

Q: In 2011, when NSFC celebrated its 25th anniversary, an international review panel identified areas of its operations that could be improved. How are these issues being addressed?

Y.W.: All my predecessors worked hard to make the NSFC accountable and academically centered. We are also aware that there is room for improvement.

The first one is our small staff, which handles an increasing number of grant applications. NSFC currently has about 200 permanent staff members—10% of the NSF's in terms of head count. We can say the NSFC is very efficient. Our own operating budget at 200 million CNY is merely 1% of our total funding budget and staff salaries only take up 15% of our operating budget.

On the other hand, the insufficient staff pool for fund management may undermine the possible amplifier effect of the smart power of the NSFC, by that I mean even though we cost very little in comparison to the amount we manage, the added value by us may be insufficient. One remedy is to recruit part-time grant managers to enrich the academic fabric of the NSFC. Currently we employ about 200 provisional program managers to handle grant applications.

We have also implemented a new protocol to reduce the number of applications. If one is not successful in two consecutive years, one needs to stop for 1 year before one can apply again. This blocking year may help reduce the total number of submitted proposals and give applicants time to think about how to improve their research or to search for new directions.

In 2012, we had 178,000 submitted proposals, and about 38,000 proposals were approved. The approval rate is about 20%. This is a good ratio because we don't want the approval rate to be too high, which would mean low selectivity. Or too low, which would seem like gambling.

NSFC has always funded young researchers at the early stage of their careers. We have now extended the eligibility for early-career grants to postdocs. Starting in 2012, NSFC began a new category of selecting up to 400 excellent young investigators annually and provide each with a 3-year, 1 million CNY total grant.

We are also considering the introduction of indirect costs in the budget table. Also, since last year, we started allowing the final budget to be made by the institutions that host the investigators, not by the central government.

International peer review is a line worth pursuing. We may also try participation by international experts in formulating NSFC grant guidelines. We have also increased the amount of support allocated to international collaboration. We want to make collaborations concrete, rather than ceremonial.