New proposals to help stem misuse of research funds

China’s Ministry of Education this month published new proposals on the supervision of research funds, in order to curb rampant embezzlement and misuse.

Academic committees are to be created comprising professors, associate professors and senior professionals to supervise the funds, the ministry said in a notice published on its website last week.

The proposal came in the wake of calls by academics in recent years to reform the science funding system and give academics more say over the distribution of funds.

“They are professionals and are able to judge whether a research project is useful or not,” Chu Zhaohui, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, was quoted as saying earlier this year in the official China Daily newspaper.

Although the ministry has not yet provided details of how the committees will function, if broadly implemented across the country the new system could be an important departure from the current one in which research funds are controlled by non-specialist administrative departments.

Government officials review applications for funds and have the power to decide whether scientific projects can go ahead. Official media have acknowledged that funds often go to researchers who maintain good relations with officials, rather than those interested in genuine scientific research.

Separation of powers

“This new policy – appointment of academic committees in universities – will help academic powers to be separated from bureaucrats, so I think it is good news,” said Cao Xinglong, an associate law professor at Zhejiang University City College who has written on academic misconduct in China.

Bureaucrats within universities are sometimes appointed from the academic community, “but they have different opinions from professors on many issues so it is a good start to have a separation of state bureaucrats and academic policies,” he told University World News.

But he warned: “They may not be as good as we expect them to be. We should remain cautious about the probability that the policy will simply amount to the separation of powers between left hand and right hand.”

And the policy did not guarantee that academics on the committee would not remain subservient to bureaucrats, in order to protect their careers.

Cao pointed to the current hot topic, the case of outspoken Chinese professor Xia Yeliang who has just been fired by Peking University, where he held a position in the school of economics. The decision was widely seen as political. Although no misconduct is alleged against Xia, the university said it made its decision based on teaching evaluations.

“In this case the university’s excuse is that the decision was made by a professional committee made up of all the professors in his [Xia’s] school,” Cao said.

It would matter whether the research funding committees could genuinely act independently and who they were responsible to. “If they are responsible to the university president then they are not independent,” said Cong Cao, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham and an expert on China’s science policy.

He added that it was right not to leave the oversight of research funding only to universities. “Universities are more likely to protect their own,” he told University World News.

Anti-corruption drive

In December last year the Ministry of Education issued proposals to improve the management of research funds, including better financial information disclosure by universities. The documents stated that it was illegal to fraudulently obtain, divert or misappropriate funds intended for scientific research projects.

With a countrywide anti-corruption drive underway, experts said the timing of the latest proposals was important. “Universities and research organisations should not be seen as exempt” from the clean-up, a researcher in Southern Guandong province said.

Wan Gang, China’s minister of science and technology, earlier this month expressed anger over recent cases of embezzlement and other misuse of scientific research funds.

He told a press conference he was “very furious, distressed and shocked” by academic corruption, after almost 40 audits of departments showed that research fund misappropriation had become a common phenomenon.

Wan is a former president of Tongji University in Shanghai. “He has always known that most professors embezzled funds; these remarks are just for show,” Cao said, adding that the minister’s comments were “a signal in the new government campaign against corruption”.

Wan said the top priority was to reform the management of research funds as the country had increased expenditure on research and development, or R&D.

“The reason why he said this is that part of the money has been spent on non-research related categories,” said Nottingham’s Cong Cao.

“The political leadership, not just scientific leadership, realise that China has spent so much money in the recent decade on science and technology and yet there has been no significant breakthrough,” he told University World News.

It had become more difficult to oversee huge sums as the research budget rose dramatically, and the government wanted to see better returns on its spending, according to Cong Cao.

China has seen annual growth in R&D spending of over 20%, reaching CNY1 trillion (US$164 billion) in 2012 – an 18% increase on the previous year – according to the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Major fraud cases

Starting in June, the Ministry of Science and Technology carried out inspection checks at universities and research organisations, including on the management of research funds, checking accounting irregularities and carrying out auditing training. The ministry described the inspections as a shift to “preventative measures”.

A recent investigation by the China Association for Science and Technology found that only around 40% of funding for scientific research projects are actually used for scientific research, according to the Economic Observer newspaper.

Last July the national Natural Science Foundation of China also released details of major cases of research misconduct, including fraudulently appropriating others' research results or project proposals.

Among them was the case of Yuan Zhenguo, president of the National Institute of Education Sciences, who had examined and approved his own as well as family members' research projects.

Last January in a high profile case Duan Zhenhao, a professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geology and Geophysics, was jailed for 13 years together with his secretary Che Chunlan for siphoning off CNY1.24 million (US$203,000) between 2002 and 2011 by faking travel expenses.

The Beijing No 1 Intermediate People's Court said Duan was given a lenient penalty because he returned the misappropriated money. Duan has lodged an appeal, Beijing News reported. The case came to light when Duan's wife, Cao Xia, revealed on the internet in June and July 2011 that her husband had abused research funds to support two mistresses.

In another major case Chen Yingxu, executive vice president of Zhejiang University’s College of Environmental and Resource Sciences in Hangzhou, asked graduate students to forge receipts, invoices and contracts in order to help him divert funds from government research grants for his personal use.

Chen’s case emerged during a routine audit of Zhejiang University followed by an investigation by China’s National Audit Office. China Youth Daily claimed that it involved sums amounting to up to US$1.6 million, or 10% of the huge grant for water research at the institution.

Independent oversight?

Cong Cao believes one way to curb misappropriation is to improve the salaries of professors and researchers.

“The salaries of Chinese researchers and professors are really low, so they use part of their research grant as salary. That part is not clarified in the grant proposal or the budget so they try to come up with various creative ways to try to transfer the money as salary,” he said.

“In China, there's no rule at all for the proportion of a researcher's income that can be derived from scientific research projects,” Li Chang’an, a professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, told China Daily in January.

Critics also say that the auditing of research funds is lax, allowing fund recipients to write off vast amounts with phony invoices that are seldom checked.

In recent years, China's research institutions have begun implementing internal audits. But with a shortage of qualified auditors, auditors’ fees are rising and according to official reports some auditors are even conspiring with research institutes to pocket a portion of the funds, and some are complicit in providing fake invoices.

Chinese government departments also have problems recruiting auditors. Despite government jobs being among the most sought after in the country for new graduates, some audit departments cannot attract recruits.