Code reins in top scientists, who must ‘serve national security’

Members of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have been barred from publicly expressing academic opinions ‘unrelated to their field of expertise’, amid tightened restrictions to ensure the nation’s top scientists abide by ‘national security’ goals.

A new code of conduct released by the CAS in August also has rules that seek to curb the use of ‘academician’ titles for non-academic purposes, including those for business ventures and promotions.

‘Academician’ is the highest title bestowed on scientists in China, which members retain for life. The latest version is the first change in the CAS code of conduct for approximately a decade.

The new rules also lay down that academicians must be open to ‘supervision from society’ – a blanket term which usually means adhering to Communist Party of China control and not provoking public criticism.

The code specifically states that academicians must ensure their public statements are in line with the general policies of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Other new additions include an academician’s duty to enhance the country’s “comprehensive national strength” as well as “serving national security”.

Previously the code did not mention the Communist Party, or ‘national security’, which had been inserted in the first three articles of the code. Academicians should be a “model [of] love of the Party and love of the country”. They must also set an example of “cherishing the fatherland”, according to the new clauses.

Prohibited behaviour

The lifetime title of academician comes with a raft of official and unofficial privileges, including more research funding and greater influence over policy. The route to university leadership, particularly to president or vice-president level, has become almost impossible without an academician title.

The latest code includes a new chapter on “Prohibited behaviour” and lists a number of banned areas, including using the academician title for any activities, with the exception of those organised by CAS, or other academies such as the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) and associated divisions, academic associations and academic journals.

Academicians are also barred from taking part in “consultation, evaluation and assessment” that are unrelated to their academic duties and professional fields.

If academicians engage in such activities related to their disciplinary fields based on their professional knowledge they must be remunerated in accordance with relevant national standards and adhere to the principles of “confidentiality, fairness and impartiality”, the code said.

Academicians cannot attend social activities such as dinner parties or banquets organised to broker business deals, and they cannot engage in the establishment of non-academic venues named after academicians, according to the code.

In terms of part-time work, the code stipulates that academicians cannot seek “improper benefits” by using their titles.

Commercial events

There has been much recent criticism online about the use of academicians as quasi-celebrities in company promotions, or in university-industry projects promoted by local governments.

In several regions, academician ‘workstations’ have been set up with government funding, which provide enterprises with strategic consulting and technical expertise and research, over a period of three to five years, as a way of boosting science-linked outputs of companies, and academicians are sometimes used to promote these.

While academicians approached by University World News declined to comment on the new rule on speaking only on matters of their own expertise and respecting ‘national security’, some agreed with the tightening of rules around participating in non-academic events.

One academician, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was frequently invited to events outside his speciality such as commercial events, in order to lend such events scientific gravitas.

These have proliferated given the government’s constant high profile emphasis on homegrown science and technology, he said. Some of these attendances may be paid for and the academician said he did not always know how to politely decline.

“How can scientists concentrate on academic pursuits if they are caught up in ‘trivial matters’ and seek fame and fortune? Such behaviour has triggered public debate and risks undermining the respectability of the title of academician and the gravitas of scientific authority,” a recent commentary in the official Beijing Daily newspaper stated.

Tightened rules for candidate nomination

New academicians are named every two years. On 1 September CAS revealed 583 candidates, while CAE listed 655 candidates chosen after the nomination process began in May.

CAS will select 79 new academicians and CAE will select no more than 90 during this round, with “contribution to national security” given new emphasis this year, the two academic societies said.

According to CAS, launching the application process for new academicians in June, new members should come from key scientific disciplines in basic sciences, frontier sciences, and interdisciplinary research that serves “urgent national strategic needs”.

Scientists with notable contributions to national security, the country’s science self-sufficiency drive and other key scientific research projects will also be favoured this year, it said.

Professor Yan Ning, a renowned structural biologist who works in Tsinghua University’s school of life sciences in Shenzhen, and who recently returned from Princeton University in the United States, and Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the CAS Wuhan Institute of Virology, are notable names on the current list of academician candidates.

While at Princeton Yan was elected as the US National Academy of Sciences Foreign Associate in 2019 for her outstanding contribution to biological sciences.

Following years of discussion over party-linked favouritism and alleged nepotism in the way candidates are put forward, new “fairness and impartiality” regulations for the application process brought in this year have meant people holding senior positions in government agencies or companies cannot be academician candidates. In 2014, government departments were barred from nominating candidates.

Academician candidates are now nominated by fellow academicians or by the China Association for Science and Technology, a federation of national professional societies. Each academician can only recommend one candidate who must not be a family member or their graduate student. Candidates over age 65 need to be recommended by two academicians.

The average age of CAS academicians is 73 and around two thirds are over 65. Foreign applicants who have made notable contributions to the development of science and technology in China can also apply to become fellows.

* University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article