China
你好, 中国 - From Workbench Economy to a Leader in Science and Technology (Pt I)

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 07/2013


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German-Chinese friendship

Similar rules apply to the Visiting Professorships for Senior International Scientists programme, which provide annually up to €60,000 for full and up to €48,000 for associate professors. 65 young and 150 senior scientists were successful last year. In addition, 50 annual fellowships are earmarked for scientists from developing countries by the TWAS-CAS Fellowship. TWAS, the world academy of sciences, selects postgraduates, postdocs or visiting scholars and CAS hosts them.


Mental power for devising the next grant application or transfection experiment is born of tranquillity. Photo: Fotolia/jtanki

Networking and the training of young CAS researchers are elements of the Einstein Professorship programme. Applying scientists are expected to be leaders in their fields and may take part irrespective of nationality and scientific topic. Twenty professors per year get the opportunity to visit at least two CAS institutes in two different cities and to give a lecture at a CAS university. Back at home, each Einstein Professor will host one or two young CAS researchers in his own lab for up to three months, which is extendable. The annual application deadline is in October. The JUNMA Programme is a quite recent, not yet fully implemented initiative to strengthen the cooperation between the German Max Planck Society and CAS. It builds on the successful and highly competitive Young Scientist Research Group Leader programme of the Max Planck Society. Group leaders at the end of their temporary contract at a Max Planck Institute are offered the opportunity to continue their career at a CAS institute. Promising scientists may be either picked out from the pool of current group leaders or, in future, jointly selected by both organisations to spend a three to five year period at a Max Planck Institute before joining CAS. At the CAS institution the group leader will receive support for at least three years. Provided are a personal annual allowance of €120,000 as well as research funds of up to €600,000.

Coping with a flood of applications

The support of frontier and creative research, primarily in basic but also applied research, the promotion of scientific talent and the improvement of infrastructure including international collaboration are the main pillars of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) funding strategy. It was established in 1986 by the State Council, following the suggestion of a group of CAS members to set up a national natural science fund to further promote and reform science and technology in China. Right now, the NSFC funds roughly 25% of all basic research activities in China. Three quarters of the NSFC’s budget is derived from central government. Depending on the source, this year’s budget is somewhere between €2.85 and €3.9 billion. Double-digit annual growth rates are expected for the next five years. The material scientist Yang Wei, who is known for his zero-tolerance policy concerning scientific misconduct, has headed the NSFC since early 2013.

With about 200 permanent staff members, the NSFC is quite a small agency in relation to its huge budget. Funding by the NSFC is largely based on peer-review of applications for investigator-initiated research projects with submission at the end of March and publication of evaluation results in October. Applications are reviewed by at least three domestic peer reviewers. Programme directors at NSFC pre-select applications based on reviews, before they are presented and short-listed by 61 disciplinary panels with a total of 750 experts. With 177,000 submissions in 2012, the NSFC received the most applications of any funding agency worldwide. The overall success rate of applications is around 20%. The NSFC offers more than 20 programmes for funding in the categories of research promotion, talent training and infrastructure construction. A guide with details of all programmes is published each year. Research promotion accounts for more than 60% and talent training for a notable third of the total budget. Grants derived from the NSFC General Programme, the major programme for scientist-initiated basic research projects, constitute the survival grant for scientists in China. About 17,000 new three-year grants with an average of €88,000 were funded last year. Another research-promoting scheme is the Key Programme that supports in-depth frontier research. In 2012, 540 four-year grants were awarded with an average of €350,000. The Young Scientist Fund is the major measure for talent training. It supports scientists aged under 35 to conduct basic research on a freely chosen topic; 14,000 three-year grants of an average €29,000 were awarded in the last round. A novel programme, the Excellence Young Scientist Fund, was introduced recently, to foster scientists with five to ten years of research experience. Of more than 3,500 applications 400 were selected and received a three-year grant worth €120,000.

Setting standards for recognition

The establishment of widely accepted rules for ethics, research integrity and good scientific practice are prerequisites to becoming fully accepted by the worldwide scientific community. There is still a way to go before China meets international standards. Setting up guidelines and actively ensuring their compliance or even punishing any misbehaviour are two different things. The NSFC introduced a committee to supervise research integrity a few years ago. NFSC President Wei Yang revealed in a Science Insider interview in March that, on average, 200 allegations are handled by the committee per year. About one in ten allegations emerges as a misconduct case after closer investigation.

The top five categories turned out to be forgery of credentials, including faked signatures of cooperation partners on grant applications, plagiarism, including self-plagiarism, the selection of benevolent reviewers by NSFC programme managers, premature leakage of the details of grant evaluations and bogus progress reports by scientists. The NSFC has established counter measures, such as the use of plagiarism software on grant applications on a random basis and an increase in the number of reviewers to seven and more. Some prominent examples of misconduct have indeed become public, such as the case of the president of the National Institute of Education Sciences, Yuan Zhenguo, who approved his own and family members’ grant applications, the case of Duan Zhenhao from the CAS Institute of Geology and Geophysics who made about €130,000 by forging travel expenses and the case of Chen Yingxu, executive vice president of Zhejiang University’s College of Environmental and Resource Sciences, who redirected 10% of his €12 million grant to study water pollution into his own wallet.

High-level jury gears up reforms

Not many research institutions and organisations in China are evaluated on a regular basis. Even fewer evaluations are conducted independently by incorporating leading experts from abroad. In 2010/11, the NSFC was evaluated for the first time by an international committee headed by Richard Zare, Head of the Chemistry Department at Stanford University, Han Qide, Vice-President of the National People’s Congress and the German Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program organisation. The public evaluation report is a worth read and provides some insights into the NSFC and beyond.

After initial praise for past NSFC achievements, a whole bunch of clear recommendations were made. The more general advice directed towards the State Council was that future investments into basic research be enhanced via the NSFC route. More specifically, NSFC staff and salaries need to be enhanced to cope with the large numbers of grants and to curb corruption. The size and duration of individual grants should be elevated and two submission cycles per year introduced. Since personnel costs in NSFC research projects are limited to a rather low 15% of the total grant and additional bureaucratic hurdles in spending exist, an increase in the flexible use of funds was suggested. With respect to the evaluation process, an increase in the number of younger scientists and researchers from abroad in review panels was proposed, along with allowing interdisciplinary applications and review panels and the introduction of new mechanisms to avoid conflict of interests. Based on these recommendations, the NSFC introduced the Excellence Young Scientist Fund (above), lifted the number of temporary programme managers to 200 and allowed some improvements with respect to the budgeting of projects.

Outlook

In Western countries it took often more than a hundred years of trial and error to establish an efficient and highly differentiated education, research and innovation system. Right now, China is trying to conquer the peaks without doing the necessary footwork. Vast investment into prestigious propaganda projects cannot replace fundamental reforms in the education and research sector. Long awaited changes in China’s political leadership that became effective less than a year ago, have not so far led to groundbreaking reforms. Instead, as in the past, more money for education and science was announced. Providing research infrastructure is essential but this must be accompanied by measurements that ensure the infrastructure’s efficient operation. Elite programmes, if not introduced in a fully transparent manner, run the risk of killing any interaction between institutions or between individual scientists, due to a huge imbalance in resources and salaries.

Chinese scientists who come home after having established a successful career abroad quickly realise that there are still too many people feeding on old habits from the past and obstructing changes for the better. Not receiving support via “guanxi”, a strong reciprocal social network of contacts, impairs the integration and professional progress of these new arrivals. Internationalisation efforts are on the rise but sometimes remain ceremonial and lukewarm. If you are not into Chinese culture and language, below retirement age, are more interested in science than profit maximisation and are not engaged in frontier research that is led by scientists in China, there are few reasons to go East.

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