Chinese scientists bristle at minister's claim some abuse research funding

In a rare foray into political sphere, researchers say minister has unfairly targeted them with claims that they are skimming money off grants

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 October, 2013, 3:17am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 October, 2013, 4:12pm

Mainland scientists are worried they may become the next target in the graft crackdown following an unusually stern warning by the science minister over abuse of research funds.

Some scientists said a witch-hunt would only undermine innovation, triggering a flight of talent to the private sector, where the pay was several times higher than what they received from the central government.

Dr Wan Gang, the country's minister for science and technology, said last week the abuse of scientific funds had become "detrimental", and that some leading scientists had been held for criminal investigation on corruption charges.

"I feel angry, and sad, and surprised," Wan said when asked about the matter. "Our money is taxpayers' money. We are responsible for it, and we will not tolerate such a phenomenon."

Xinhua later reported that some researchers had used funding to offset their salaries.

Government auditors had found that the Institute of Biophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences had improperly used more than 12 million yuan (HK$15.2 million) between 2009 and 2011.

The Xinhua report said scientists pocketed money through abusing reimbursements for transport, food, travel, furniture, and in come cases, the purchase of property.

But researchers chafed at the perceived attack on their profession. "You are not making any appeal against the unfair treatment of scientific researchers nor finding any problem with the ministry itself," wrote Li Jun on his blog at the largest online scientific community on the mainland.

"Instead, you only snipe as if it has nothing to do with you. If you don't feed the horse fully, the horse can only steal."

Li is a senior researcher with the China National Materials Group, a large state-owned enterprise, and his article was one of many angry posts by established scientists targeting Wan.

The flare-up is notable because mainland scientists rarely make comments that touch on politics, especially about officials who control their research funds.

"Everyone feels angry because everyone feels threatened," said a physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who declined to be named.

Another professional with the academy's Institute of Policy and Management said using research funds to offset incomes was standard practice.

"If Wan means what he said and launches an investigation into all science projects, every scientist with a research grant will be found to have engaged in some kind of abuse," he said.

"Everyone can be held up as a corrupt criminal. That's probably why his remarks have triggered so much attention," said the researcher, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

If scientists were paid more respectable salaries, the problem would not occur, he said.

On the mainland, a university professor or institute researcher receives a basic salary from the central government of between 3,000 to 5,000 yuan a month. They can also earn an extra 3,000 to 4,000 yuan a month by teaching classes, he said.

Some cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai have set up programmes to subsidise researchers' incomes, but less developed areas are lagging behind.

"The legal income of many professors is only a few thousand yuan a month, and they have to earn the extra from their research funds to maintain a respectable living standard," he said.

Some economists agree with the scientists' complaints. Mei Xinyu , an economist with the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Co-operation under the Ministry of Commerce, wrote on his blog on that Wan's remarks and the Xinhua's report, which was carried on major news portals, would would have a severe chilling effect on scientific research on the mainland.

"Starting at least 20 years ago, the standard practice at universities and research institutes has been to determine the proportion of a research fund that should be paid to researchers, and then ask them to claim it through reimbursements with various receipts," Mei said.

"Only through that measure have we managed to maintain a sizeable research and development force. Otherwise, they would all go overseas or to non-research sectors," he said. "Some senior officials … are driving public opinion for their own political interests."

But Yu Xinyu, a resident of Beijing's Chaoyang district, said researchers' low salaries did not excuse abuse of scientific funds.

"If scientists can reason like that, then anyone on a government pay cheque could do the same. Public servants would become corrupt, bus drivers would go on strike, housemaids could steal from their employers, all because they need to maintain their standard of living," he said.

"Scientists are definitely not the best paid, but nor are they the worst paid, either."

Beijing this year increased spending on research and development by nearly 18 per cent from last year, taking the total to just over 1 trillion yuan, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. There are about 3.2 million researchers registered with the government.

The State Intellectual Property Office gave 217, 105 patents to domestic and overseas applicants last year, a 26.1 per cent increase from the previous year, according to the office.