China tackles biased awards

Do Chinese government reforms designed to thwart academic fraud go far enough?

3 October 2017

Hepeng Jia

Olekcii Mach / Alamy Stock Photo

China has introduced a plan to reform its national science and technology awards system, after repeated appeals from scientists and top policy advisors, who say the selection process is biased, lacks transparency, and leads to misconduct.

But experts say insufficient detail on how the reforms will be implemented, and the state’s continued involvement, could frustrate the process. On 9 June, China’s cabinet, the State Council, released a plan to reform its three state-sponsored awards, which distribute 400 prizes annually. Further details were announced on 20 June by Huang Wei, vice minister of science and technology.

The awards are some of the highest honours Chinese scientists can receive from the government.

According to Zhou Jianzhong, a senior research fellow at the Institutes of Science and Development, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), many universities count the awards in their faculty assessments, which determine career promotions and the distribution of research funding. These incentives, says Zhou, have made the awards highly sought-after, sometimes even leading to transgressive behaviour.

In 2011, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) retracted an award given to Li Liansheng, a former professor of mechanical engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China’s central province of Shaanxi. An investigation found that Li had falsified papers on compressors used in air conditioning systems and made exaggerated claims about the profitability of his scientific inventions.

The legitimacy of several other awards to high-profile scientists have also been questioned publicly, without any official forfeitures.

With the recently announced reforms, the State Council plans to introduce measures that ensure award benefits are only honorary in nature and make the process of selecting committee members and nominating candidates more transparent. It also plans to limit the number of awards to fewer than 300 to reduce the administrative burden for reviewers.

A key change will be a shift from a quota system to independent nomination by leading scientists, such as academicians affiliated with CAS and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Currently, the Ministry of Education (representing universities), CAS, other government departments who have research functions, provincial governments, and state-owned enterprises are given quotas to nominate candidates. Judging committees appointed by China’s National Office for Science and Technology Awards (NOSTA), affiliated with MOST, then select the winners.

The problem with the quota system, says Zhou, is that it offers too much control over the process to the nominating agencies, and does not fully reflect the scientific achievements of working scientists. Zhou, who has been advising the State Council on the reforms, says the changes will make the awards more transparent and open. However, details on how these will be implemented have not yet been announced.

MOST will also record any instances of researcher misconduct, such as lobbying reviewers, pirating intellectual property, or ‘packaging’ award candidates — the process whereby a university or institute attributes the research achievements of multiple individuals to one person, often a leader or senior scientist, or one project to boost their chances of winning an award. Those found to be involved in these activities will be immediately denied entry to the competitions, possibly permanently.

The reforms also insist on the honorary nature of the awards, suggesting that they will not continue to be integrated in university faculty and project assessments.

But some researchers feel the reforms don’t go far enough. Cong Cao, a leading expert on China’s science policy at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, argues that state awards lack transparency and are biased in favour of senior scientists and heads of institutions in their selection. Instead, he believes national awards should be replaced by honorary awards issued by authoritative science societies in individual disciplines, similar to the Priestley Medal awarded by the American Chemical Society.

State-sponsored awards were useful in the 1980s when China was trying to attract talented scientists working overseas to come back, says Cao. Now that it can afford to pay higher salaries and offer larger grants to attract scientists, he says, national awards are no longer necessary.

Zhou is sceptical that the government will go that far. Policymakers are unlikely to accept a plan that completely abolishes national science and technology awards, he says — the current reform is an attempt to optimize the existing system.


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