Critics pounce on China’s top science prize

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Critics pounce on China’s top science prize

Controversy has erupted over China’s highest science prize for 2014. Critics are blasting the winning project, on network computing, as not innovative and undeserving.

On 9 January, the State First-Class Natural Science Award went to Zhang Yaoxue, a computer scientist and member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering, and his team. The 200,000 yuan ($32,000) annual prize is considered prestigious because it is awarded sparingly: Nine times in the past 15 years there have been no winners. The government has said that it is better to have no winners than to award the prize to undeserving work.

That’s why many scientists are fuming over the selection of Zhang’s “transparent computing” research for the 2014 award. Zhang’s work is “too engineering-oriented and too ordinary” to warrant the top science prize, and the award has drawn “a barrage of criticism” from China’s information technology community, says Liu Yang, a computer engineer who builds and hosts websites. Liu was the first to question the merit of Zhang’s work on ScienceNet.cn; he wrote in a blog post (later deleted by censors) that Zhang’s work “at most is an application of some open-source software.” Many people share Liu’s view. Wang Xiaoping, a computer scientist at Tongji University in Shanghai, wrote in a blog post that Zhang’s work is “a far cry” from the standard required for winning the science award.

In an interview in Science and Technology Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s science ministry, which oversees the nation’s science prizes, Zhang describes his work as a “meta–operating system” that allows operating systems to be run on any hardware. The breakthrough, he says, lies in “separating computing from storage and making software independent of hardware.” He gave a link to a video demonstrating “transparent computing” on personal computers, tablets, and smart phones. Comments posted at that site say that Zhang’s model is no different from a remote desktop—a software tool that allows users to access another device on a network with the local device serving as a desktop of the remote computer—or from a network computer, a diskless device made by some U.S. companies in the late 1990s that depends on other devices on a network to store software and data. Zhang did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

For years, many in China’s scientific community have criticized the selection process for S&T prizes as too political. The process involves researchers submitting their own work to ministries, agencies, and provincial governments, which then nominate submissions for awards. Before being appointed president of Central South University in Changsha in 2011, Zhang had served for more than a decade as an official at the education ministry, which nominated his work for the award. An anonymous comment on ScienceNet.cn put it this way: Zhang’s “transparent computing is so transparent that it’s like the emperor’s new clothes.”

China’s professional computer society, the China Computer Federation (CCF), seemed to disagree with the selection of Zhang’s work for the top science award. On 21 January, CCF posted an appeal on its website, calling on the government to stop meddling in science awards. The statement was replaced 2 days later with a notice saying that the appeal was not related to last year’s science awards and was removed “in order not to mislead the public.”

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