CHINA: Cronyism outrage after science title is denied

Academic cronyism that dictates who gets research funding is blighting China's research establishment. It has been brought to the fore in a very public manner by the denial of 'academician' status at the Chinese Academy of Science to a star researcher enticed from abroad, amid claims that scientists of lesser renown were given the title.

Rao Yi (pictured), dean of the College of Life Sciences at China's top-rated Peking University, was not selected as a academician during a round of appointments to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) in August.

The news came to light when Rao wrote a post in his blog last month expressing gratitude to the scholars who nominated him, but declared he would not stand as a candidate for CAS academician again.

It emerged that Rao was delisted from the 2011 candidates roll by the elementary qualification-for-candidate censorship which appeared to cast doubt on the extent of his scientific achievements to date.

Yet "Rao's academic achievement seems much higher than the average level of other candidates or even present academicians," said Cao Xinglong, an assistant associate professor at Zhejiang University City College who has been studying the gap between the law and practice in the academic sphere and who has written on academic misconduct in China.

"The outcome was both shocking and expected. While an excellent research scientist in his own field (biology) Rao Yi has also been very outspoken in his criticism of the current academic system in China," noted China's Scientific and Academic Integrity Watch. It is a blog run by Fang Zhouzi, a pseudonym of Fang Shimin, a biochemist who runs the New Thread's website exposing academic misconduct.

'Punished' for being outspoken

Chinese academics who spoke to University World News on condition of anonymity said they believed Rao, lured from Northwestern University in Chicago to Peking University in 2007 amid great official fanfare, was being 'punished' for speaking out on academic corruption, in particular the way government science research funding "wastes resources, corrupts the spirit and stymies innovation," in Rao's words.

In a signed article published last September in the journal Science, co-written with biophysicist Shi Yigong who was enticed from Princeton University in 2008 to become dean of life sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the academics said personal connections rather than scientific prowess are often what determines who receives research grants in China.

While small research grants are mainly on the basis of competitive bidding among universities, the largest research projects, worth up to hundreds of million Yuan, were not based on scientific merit. Rather, the "intended recipients were obvious" when science funding guidelines were being drawn up, they said.

"To obtain major grants in China it is an open secret that doing good research is not as important as schmoozing with powerful bureaucrats and their favourite experts."

"A significant proportion of researchers in China spend too much time on building connections and not enough time attending seminars, discussing science, doing research or training students...most are too busy to be found in their own institutions. Some become part of the problem. They use connections to judge grant applications and undervalue scientific merit."

Spotlight on research corruption

While the Chinese authorities angrily denied the allegations in November, the criticisms threw the spotlight on research corruption and embezzlement in general.

Beijing lawyer Liu Zhuang, deputy chief prosecutor in the capital's Haidian district, was quoted as saying in the semi-official Global Times newspaper that the dramatic increases in science research funding - growing at the rate of some 20% a year - are viewed by some as an opportunity to make money, "even at the expense of their reputations and academic careers".

The newspaper cited critics as saying that the auditing of research funds was far too lax, "allowing fund recipients to write off vast amounts with phony invoices that are seldom checked". It added that "when some scientists bargain with a supplier for equipment they are often looking for a higher price, not a lower one."

The public outcry over irregularities in science research funding exposed by Rao and his colleague continued to manifest itself on internet sites for months. That is has flared up with Rao once again at the centre of the debate, this time over the way academic titles are awarded, has given the decision exposure beyond the narrow sphere of academia.

"This is remarkable even in China. The response from common people was so intense and their voices so strong," Cao told University World News.

CAS, an institution directly under China's state council, has extensive authority to supervise the state's scientific activities, and academician or yuanshi is the highest academic title under the state-run system. It is retained lifelong and provides social, academic, political and even monetary benefits to its holders.

Integrity of system hurt

Rao's work may not be affected by the lack of the title, as he had built up a considerable reputation in his field of biomedicine before he arrived at Peking University.

But for him to rule himself out of seeking the title in the future calls into question the value of the titles when decisions are not seen to be based on merit. "It is not just individual professors that are being hurt, it is the integrity, reliability and prestige of the Chinese university system," said Cao.

Cao believes the situation has reached a level where it can no longer be ignored by the government. "The response of the common people has made the situation awkward," he said

But it could be difficult for the authorities to act, as laws already exist. "Chinese academic activities can in theory be more rigorous than in the West if you follow the law in China," Cao said. But in practise the courts did not want to interfere with universities' internal affairs to enforce the law.

"As a result, China has established a system by which academia largely polices itself and the law plays little or no role."

"Many high-ranking officials know that academic misconduct is common but they have no way to avoid such scandals, and more important they themselves may be beneficiaries of much of the academic misconduct," Cao told University World News.

In an interview in Science last month, Rao did not mince words. "I can choose to brownnose people, to give up all principles and to do whatever people like rather than what I think is right. Then I get everything other people think I should get: higher positions, awards, and honors.

"I never curry favour with any government, and officialdom does not appeal to me. After I announced that I would not stand for academician elections again, I offered to resign the deanship of Beida's [Peking University's] school of life sciences. A non-academician dean might harm the opportunities of its faculty members who aspire to become yuanshi some day. But [the university] didn't accept my offer."

He declared himself still positive about Chinese science and education and insisted that he made the right decision to return to China.

"Some say my failure to be elected a yuanshi may deter other established scientists from coming back. I would say to them that coming back is more exciting than staying in the West."

Related links
CHINA: Lax rules aid academic misconduct
CHINA: Crackdown on sub-standard journals
GLOBAL: New code to promote academic honesty
CHINA: Universities fail to tackle plagiarism


The story of Professor Rao epitomises a situation in Nigerian universities where a considerable number of academics recoil from the truth, thereby always looking for ways to unjustly incriminate the righteous intelligentsia.

In this way, the righteous intelligentsia could easily become victims of whims and unwarranted ejection from the university system. Consequently, the prospects for sustainable development of the Nigerian society will be jeopardised in the light of calamities that may snowball from the game of charades which is underway in Nigerian universities.

Dr Akeem Ayofe Akinwale