More and more Chinese scientists speak out freely about what, in their view, is necessary to reform China’s research system. A worth-reading 2013 multi-author article in Science entitled “Reforming China’s S&T System” (341:460) started with the claim that China’s innovation system is still underperforming, despite more money, sophisticated equipment and better-trained talents. They described in detail the weaknesses of China’s science system, including its highly bureaucratic governance structure with the overpowering Ministry of Science and Technology, the lack of coordination of national S&T programmes and policies, the allocation of large research budgets to a few individuals independent of scientific merit and fair peer review as well as the weak evaluation culture, which is almost totally based on SCI-indexed publications. The article finished with the demand that China’s leadership must show political will now and should not only pass new regulations but carefully monitor their implementation and revise them upon feedback, if necessary.
Seahorse is an important ingredient of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is believed to cure almost anything from baldness to asthma and infertility. Some real research showed that its anti-arthritic activity might stem from a cathepsin-derived peptide. Photo: Fotolia/Stéphane Bidouze
Efforts and initiatives to improve China’s research system do exist but are viewed with a great deal of suspicion and do not often receive greater publicity. To counteract the misuse of research funds, which became apparent following an investigation of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), unveiling that just 40% of research funds are actually used for research purposes, the Ministry of Education proposed last year that academic committees at universities, consisting of professors and senior scientists and not state bureaucrats or administrators, should decide on research funding and oversee research projects.
The Ministry of Science and Technology started recently to perform audits at universities and research organisations and has installed an Office of Scientific Research Integrity Construction. A nationwide effort to educate PhD students and younger scientists in research ethics by CAST and the Ministry of Education is ongoing. The National Natural Science of China Foundation has begun to use plagiarism-detecting software on grant applications and the Academic Misconduct Literature Check software was developed to check documents for plagiarism against a database of 80 million papers written in Chinese. Individual universities, such as the Zhejiang University, have implemented zero tolerance policies for scientific misconduct. A novel five-year plan against bribery was recently issued by the Communist Party’s Central Committee and will also target the higher education sector, where bribery is associated with the construction of infrastructure, purchasing of goods and materials, and student enrolment.
The first Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) was published a few weeks ago, and assessed not only the efforts to produce and acquire talents but also the impact of talents in 103 different countries. Switzerland, Singapore and Denmark took the lead, whereas China ranked 47th. In the categories “attract”, “grow” and “retain” China displayed mediocrity and was classified 65th, 40th and 68th, respectively. Other Asian countries including Japan, Korea and Malaysia were better placed.
This is somehow unexpected, since China has a long tradition of brain gain programmes. Already in 1998 the Yangtze River Scholars Programme (Chanjiang Scholars Programme) was initiated by the Ministry of Education and received additional funding by the Foundation of Li Ka Shing, one of the richest Asians worldwide. Funds were provided for attracting outstanding researchers from China and abroad to work at universities and contribute to the development of science in China. Submeasures included distinguished full-time professorships for professors with overseas experience and short-time lecture professorships with a duration of at least two months for scientists from abroad.
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For a long time, 100 new three-year appointments were made for each of the two professorships per year. A generous start-up funding of more than €200,000 for the distinguished professor with additional allowances and bonuses made the programme quite attractive. Since 2011, the Central Government has taken on the programme and introduced several modifications, such as the recruitment of 150 distinguished professors per year, a doubling of the annual pay bonus to €25,000 a year or the extension of service time up to five years.
The Hundred Talents Programme of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) was initiated in 1994 with the goal to attract and support 100 excellent young researchers, preferentially below the age of 40, to its institutes from both China and abroad by the end of the 90s. In 1998, the programme was further expanded by the Knowledge Innovation Programme; it received substantial funding by the Government and the focus somewhat changed to attract expats. Sub-programmes supported included the Distinguished Talent and the Domestic Talent.
Last year, a Distinguished Talent received a salary of a full professor at level 4, an €85,000 relocation package from the hosting CAS institute, a research grant worth €250,000 and a construction fund worth €75,000. In addition, in some job ads an apartment was provided, which after ten years of employment with the institute belongs to the scientist. Individual top scientists in the past received much higher payments and additional allowances. The Chanjiang Scholars and the Hundred Talents Programme led to the recruitment of more than 4,000 scientists since their inception.
Ongoing is the Thousand Talents Programme, which was started in 2008 with the aim to lure back 2,000 scientists but also entrepreneurs and financial specialists to China within the next five to ten years. In 2013, the Programme target figures had already been surpassed and more than 3,000 returnees were recruited. The programme is under discussion, since it did not fulfil the initial goals to attract the very best talent and to retain these talents permanently. Despite some setbacks, China continues to nurture its talents. A dedicated Talent Development Plan (2010-2020) is in place and intends to double the labour force with higher education by 2020. The worldwide largest postgraduate programme of the China Scholarship Council just increased the number of PhD students that are sent abroad each year, to 7,000.
China’s leading research universities are on the right track and continue to improve their overall scientific output and international standing. But research is only one task of universities and much progress has to be made to solve other pressing problems in the higher education sector, including its rapid expansion, its insufficient quality assurance system, the lack of institutional autonomy and academic freedom as well as the unemployment rate of recent college graduates. In the National Medium- and Long-term Talent Development Plan (2010-2020), China has once again, time intensified its efforts by sending its talents abroad but also by luring them back.
Hopefully, the ever-increasing crowd of top scientists of Chinese and Non-Chinese origin, who have been educated and prevailed at leading institutions worldwide, will have an impact not only on scientific advancement but also on China’s research culture, including research ethics. Opportunities for international scientists at all levels do exist, either in academia or in one of the rapidly increasing R&D centres established by multinational companies. Making a scientific career and a decent living in China as a scientist from abroad will, however, remain for most a challenge for many years.