C'est la Vie – comme ci comme ça

September 4, 2010

卢森堡(119)- China’s Research Culture

Filed under: News and Commentary, Study and Work — hitzws @ 3:52 PM

China’s Research Culture
Yigong Shi1,* and Yi Rao2,
1 Yigong Shi is a professor and dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.
2 Yi Rao is a professor and dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University, Beijing, China.

Government research funds in China have been growing at an annual rate of more than 20%, exceeding even the expectations of China’s most enthusiastic scientists. In theory, this could allow China to make truly outstanding progress in science and research, complementing the nation’s economic success. In reality, however, rampant problems in research funding—some attributable to the system and others cultural—are slowing down China’s potential pace of innovation.
Although scientific merit may still be the key to the success of smaller research grants, such as those from China’s National Natural Science Foundation, it is much less relevant for the megaproject grants from various government funding agencies, which range from tens to hundreds of millions of Chinese yuan (7 yuan equals approximately 1 U.S. dollar). For the latter,the key is the application guidelines that are issued each year to specify research areas and projects. Their ostensible purpose is to outline “national needs.” But the guidelines are often so narrowly described that they leave little doubt that the “needs” are anything but national; instead, the intended recipients are obvious. Committees appointed by bureaucrats in the funding agencies determine these annual guidelines. For obvious reasons, the chairs of the committees often listen to and usually cooperate with the bureaucrats. “Expert opinions” simply reflect a mutual understanding  between a very small group of bureaucrats and their favorite scientists. This top-down approach stifles innovation and makes clear to everyone that the connections with bureaucrats and a few powerful scientists are paramount, dictating the entire process of guideline preparation. 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.
This problematic funding system is frequently ridiculed by the majority of  Chinese researchers. And yet it is also, paradoxically, accepted by most of them. Some believe that there is no choice but to accept these conventions. This culture even permeates the minds of those who are new returnees from abroad; they quickly adapt to the local environment and perpetuate the unhealthy culture. 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 (instead, using them as laborers in their laboratories). Most are too busy to be found in their own institutions. Some become part of the problem: They use connections to judge grant applicants and undervalue scientific merit.
There is no need to spell out the ethical code for scientific research and grants management, as most of the power brokers in Chinese research were educated in industrialized countries. But overhauling the system will be no easy task. Those favored by the existing system resist meaningful reform. Some who oppose the unhealthy culture choose to be silent for fear of losing future grant opportunities. Others who want change take the attitude of “wait and see,” rather than risk a losing battle.
Despite the roadblocks, those shaping science policy and those working at the bench clearly recognize the problems with China’s current research culture: It wastes resources, corrupts the spirit, and stymies innovation. The time for China to build a healthy research culture is now, riding the momentum of increasing funding and a growing strong will to break away from damaging conventions. A simple but important start would be to distribute all of the new funds based on merit, without regard to connections. Over time, this new culture could and should become the major pillar of a system that nurtures, rather than squanders, the innovative potential of China.

中国政府投入的科研经费以每年超过20%的幅度增涨,这甚至超出了中国最乐观的科学家们的预期。理论上讲,这应当能够使中国在科研领域取得真正突破性的进展、与中国的经济成功相辅相成。然而现实的情况是,科研经费分配所存在的严重问题却减缓了中国潜在的创新步伐。其中这些问题一部分要归结于体制,一部分要归结于文化。
尽管对于一些小额科研经费来说,比如由中国国家自然科学基金委员会资助的小额科研经费,科研质量的优劣可能仍然是能否获得经费的关键因素;但是,对于来自政府各个部门的巨额科研项目来说,科研质量的优劣与能否获得经费的相关性就小得多了,这些项目的经费一般都高达几千万元到几亿元人民币。对于巨额科研经费而言,问题关键在于每年针对特定科研领域与项目颁布的申请指南。表面上,这些指南的目的是突出“国家重大需求”;然而实际上,项目的申请指南却往往被具体而狭隘地阐释,申请人基本上可以无需过多思索地意识到这些“需求”并非国家的真正需求;经费预定给谁基本上一目了然。政府官员任命的专家委员会的委员负责编写年度申请指南。显而易见的,专家委员会的主席们会常常听从官员们的意见,并与他们进行合作。所谓的“专家意见”不过只是反映了很小一部分官员及其所赏识的科学家之间的相互理解。这种自上而下的方式不仅抑制了创新,也让每个申请人都心知肚明:与个别官员和少数强势的科学家搞好关系才是最重要的,因为他们主宰了经费申请指南制定的全过程。在中国,为了获得重大项目,一个公开的秘密就是:做好的研究还不如与官员和他们赏识的专家拉关系重要。
中国大多数研究人员常常嘲讽这种存在明显缺陷的经费分配体制。然而,一个自相矛盾的现象是,他们中的绝大多数人却默默接受了这个体制。一部分研究人员认为除了接受这些惯例,此外别无选择。这种潜规则文化甚至渗透到了那些刚从海外回国的学者的意识当中:他们很快就适应了局部的小环境,并且传承和发扬着这种不健康的文化。在中国,相当比例的研究人员花费了过多精力去拉关系,却没有足够的时间去参加学术会议,讨论学术、做研究或培养学生的问题(甚至不乏研究人员将学生当做廉价劳力使用)。很多研究人员因为太忙,而很少呆在自己原来的单位。有些研究人员本身已成为这个问题的一部分:他们更多的是基于关系,而非学术质量优劣来评审经费申请者。
无需赘述科研与经费管理中的伦理规章,因为绝大多数中国科研界的权势人物都在工业化发达国家接受过教育。然而,全面改变这一体制并非易事。现行体制的既得利益者拒绝真正意义上的改革;而那部分反对不健康文化的研究人员,因为害怕未来可能会失去获得经费的机会,而选择了沉默;其他希望有所改变的研究人员则持“等待与观望”态度,却不愿意承担改革可能失败的风险。
尽管改革之路障碍重重,科学政策制定者与一些一线科学家都已经清楚地意识到中国目前科研文化中的问题。这个问题在浪费经费资源、腐蚀学术精神、阻碍科研创新。而借助于目前科研经费增涨的态势以及日益强烈的打破有害陈规的意愿,现在正是中国建设健康科研文化的最好时刻。一个简单而又重要的起点就是,基于学术质量的优劣,而不是靠关系,来分配所有新的科研经费。随着时间的积累,这种新文化将能够而且也应当成为一个新体制的顶梁柱,它将培育而不是浪费中国的创新潜力。

Yigong Shi and Yi Rao. China’s Research Culture. Science, 329(5996): 1128

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