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Communist Party Takes Aim at Elite Scientists

Long considered the capstone of a scientific career in China, election to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) confers so much prestige on those anointed that organizations often try to recruit CAS members or reward their own with a guarantee of lifetime employment. But China’s Communist Party has ordered a reform of China’s academy membership system that may be aimed at curtailing privileges for academicians, or yuanshi. The surprise move “is completely outside my expectations,” says Cao Cong, a Chinese science policy scholar at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

The yuanshi system has come under mounting criticism, especially after a researcher was elected to the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) for his contributions to making cigarettes less harmful and after revelations of a corrupt railway official’s failed attempts to bribe his way into CAS. Many rank-and-file Chinese scientists both envy and chafe at the real and imagined privileges that yuanshi enjoy. The Education Ministry holds academicians in such high esteem that one metric it uses to evaluate universities is the number of yuanshi on the payroll. As a result, academicians might hold concurrent positions at several universities and institutes, fattening their wallets in the process.

Some observers view the yuanshi system as a hindrance to Chinese science and have called for abolishing it all together. That’s why many in China’s blogosphere were elated to learn that Communist Party leaders, in an opus on economic, social, and legal reforms released after a party powwow in Beijing last week, called for the “reform of election and management of the academician system” and to “implement regulations regarding retirement and withdrawal” of members. It’s uncertain how CAS will carry out the order. A researcher who has been advising CAS on reforms says he has been bombarded with questions about specific measures from both academy leaders and China’s official media—suggesting that CAS leaders were caught off-guard by the high-level mandate.

Current CAS bylaws stipulate that when academicians turn 80, they become senior members, akin to emeritus members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and lose their rights to recommend and vote on future members, though the word “retirement” is not mentioned. The bylaws also state that academic misconduct can result in a yuanshi’s expulsion. It’s not clear what more CAS could do to appease the country’s top leaders and the broader scientific community, the researcher says, but the academies will probably have a reform plan ready for a joint CAS and CAE meeting in June.