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Corruption probes ensnare Chinese science powerhouses

BEIJING—Science has once again come into the crosshairs of China’s anticorruption drive. This week, the Communist Party’s antigraft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, announced that it had uncovered fraud in research grants managed by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and at prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai.

Both announcements were sketchy on details. The Fudan probe unearthed unspecified corruption in research funding and graft connected with facilities management. Fudan officials are expected to respond to the charges with a “rectification work plan” next week, according to China Education Daily News. Xinhua, the state-run newswire, asserted that the malfeasance at Fudan was just the tip of the iceberg. In China’s scientific establishment, Xinhua stated, “project support does not depend on merit but on relationships,” and “funds are basically unsupervised” by universities once they are doled out by ministries.

The investigation of MOST, announced on Wednesday, dredged up a number of grants in which researchers held “too many outside positions” and had conflicts of interest, and it cited irregularities in “overseas business travel, business vehicles, and meetings,” in conflict with President Xi Jinping’s ongoing austerity push. As in the Fudan probe, the discipline body took aim at China’s research culture, stating that “project evaluation power is too concentrated,” with too little independent oversight, and that “the research funding system is not scientifically sound.” (Previous science takedowns by the antigraft watchdog include more than 50 S&T officials grants in wealthy Guangdong province and the Communist Party secretary of the China Association for Science and Technology in Beijing.

The portrayal of a system riddled with corruption does not surprise China watchers. Over the past decade, China has ramped up R&D spending tremendously, from less than 1% of the gross domestic product to roughly 2%, says Denis Simon, a senior adviser to the president at Arizona State University and an expert on Chinese science. “We’ve gone from a situation of scarcity to one of abundance,” he says. “The money available has been growing much faster than the ability to monitor use of that money.” Checks and balances, audits, and reporting mechanisms, Simon says, “are all fairly embryonic in China.”

Such institutional deficiencies have hampered top Chinese science officials, who in recent months have struggled to rein in fraud and malfeasance. Cao Cong, a Chinese science analyst at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, sees greater hope for reform in empowering the scientific rank and file. “The key is to give the scientific community more independence and autonomy to handle its affairs,” he says. “Right now the bureaucrats have more to say.”