Big science now faces big problems in China



As in so many other things, China’s seeking to play a leading role in 21st century science. And it’s using a familiar weapon: money.

Last month, Chinese physicists announced that they’d completed the initial design for a massive high-energy particle collider, which could become operational around 2025. The project — which may cost $3 billion and stretch for more than 60 miles — is just the latest in a string of Chinese “big science” initiatives designed to boost national prestige and produce lucrative spinoff technologies. At a time when money for basic research is increasingly difficult to obtain in the United States and Europe, China sees an opportunity to seize the global scientific vanguard.

The regime isn’t wrong to try, and the cause of human knowledge will benefit from any breakthroughs that result. But if China’s truly going to reap a return on its eye-popping investments, the government needs to do something harder than build a giant particle smasher: It needs to rethink its central role in Chinese research.

State sponsorship of science has its pluses, of course, including speedy decision-making on complex, expensive projects. But the costs often outweigh the benefits. Under the regime’s heavy hand, the Chinese scientific establishment has long suffered from cronyism, corruption and pervasive fraud. These blemishes damage the country’s research reputation. More importantly, they help drive an ongoing brain drain that no amount of government largesse has been able to stem.

While the relationship between science and the state is politicized and complex in every country (including the U.S.), China’s top-down system exacerbates the worst problems. With scientists expected to serve the state, those who show their loyalty to the regime have typically progressed as fast if not faster than those who make new discoveries. This less-than-meritocratic culture has become ingrained in the influential Chinese Academy of Sciences — a 60,000-employee bureaucratic behemoth that controls 104 of China’s top research institutions and most of its non-military research spending.

Securing funding remains an ugly business. Yi Rao, a Chinese academic lured from Northwestern University to run the Department of Life Sciences at Peking University, described it memorably in a 2010 paper co-written for Science: “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 favorite experts.” Meanwhile, those researchers lucky enough to receive funds are commonly subjected to bureaucratic interference and unrealistic demands for quick results.

Cronyism extends into academic appointments. China’s highest scientific honor — a rare fellowship in CAS — has in recent years been granted to individuals of little academic accomplishment, sparking scandal. But it’s been denied to illustrious researchers such as Yi Rao (widely believed to be in retaliation for his Science article) and, most notably, Tu Youyou, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Last month, when asked why she hadn’t received a fellowship despite numerous applications, Tu concluded: “It’s complicated.” Such favoritism is believed to extend all the way down to professorships and the tenure-track positions where researchers start their careers.

As a result, the Chinese scientific community has been plagued by graft and subpar research. In October 2013, China’s National Audit Office estimated that half of all research funds had been “misused.” The problem is big enough that China’s anti-corruption fighters are beginning to take an interest, sweeping up more than 50 officials (including the head of Guangdong province’s science office) in February 2014, as well as seven leading researchers from five universities last fall. The South China Morning Post, reporting on the Guangdong arrests, drily noted: “Analysts say that the corruption cases may offer insight on why the high investment of the state into science and research has produced little returns.”

The Chinese government has been promising to tackle these problems since 2006 at least. As with its pledges to reform hulking and inefficient state enterprises, though, the promises have come to naught. Too many entrenched interests prefer the current sclerosis to the possibility of greater long-term dynamism.

A good place to begin shaking things up would be in the universities: The government should implement a truly merit-based tenure system and abandon the practice whereby recently graduated Ph.D.s are largely guaranteed jobs, often in the degree-awarding institution. At the same time, CAS and other grant-making institutions need to remove bureaucrats from the process and implement a merit-based, peer-reviewed system run by experts in which conflicts of interest — including personal relationships — are grounds for recusal. Above all, China should deepen a commitment to international cooperation in its biggest science projects, so that top international researchers can offer up their experiences and best practices. Otherwise, China’s big science experiment is all too likely to fail.

Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade.”