China science

Could China’s US$760,000 ‘Nobel’ prize one day go to a foreign scientist?

Beijing is planning to change the rules on who can compete for its prestigious awards as part of its drive to lead the way in technology

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 6:25am

Foreigners might soon be able to challenge for China’s top science awards if proposed rule changes currently under public consultation, and which also seek to crack down on plagiarism and fraud, are given the green light.

A draft of the planned amendments, which appeared on the Ministry of Justice’s website on Tuesday, said it will “relax the nationality restriction … making it possible to include qualified foreigners”, and in future refer to candidates as “individuals” rather than “citizens”.

Details of the changes come as Beijing is working hard to attract more foreign talent to the country, as well as investing heavily in research and development. Its aim is to make the economy more innovation driven and become a leader in cutting edge technologies.

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The amendments also seek to tackle the long-standing problem of academic and scientific fraud.

Those who compete for an award or nominate a candidate will be “published by law” if they are found to have cheated or plagiarised another’s work, the draft said.

Recipients or their employers are not allowed to exaggerate their achievements as doing so would “mislead the public and affect China’s reputation”, it said.

According to the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs there are currently about 1 million foreigners working in China whose skills and expertise are officially recognised by the government.

That represents a 100-fold increase since the 1980s, but Beijing still wants more.

“The [change to the] award is just part of the government’s big plan to increase openness and attract talent from around the globe,” said a senior official at the administration who asked not to be named.

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Earlier this year the Ministry of Science and Technology released a series of new policies that allow foreigners to apply for grants and take part in major science projects on a level playing field with their Chinese colleagues, the person said.

“And it doesn’t stop at the award,” he said. “There will be more policies … and incentives coming soon.”

Wang Jiantao, a researcher at the Institute of Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing said he welcomed the rule change.

“Other countries are doing the same thing,” he said. “If foreign scientists are making significant contributions to the advancement of science and technology in our country, they deserve the awards and recognition.”

Although China has more scientists and engineers than any other country in the world, their work, despite its undoubted contribution to the nation’s development, has sometimes been criticised for a lack of originality.

For instance, the State Preeminent Science and Technology Award – China’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize – is meant to be presented annually, along with a 5 million yuan (US$760,000) cash prize, to the two scientists considered to have made the most significant breakthroughs in their respective fields.

However, in the absence of suitable nominees, the National Office for Science and Technology Awards, as custodian, has been known not to award the prize at all, or to only one person. The last time it went completely unclaimed was in 2015.

Similarly, the State Natural Science Award, whose winners are acknowledged as having “made major scientific discoveries in clarifying natural phenomena” has been awarded just 10 times in the past two decades.

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The window for public debate on the likely changes to the rules governing the science awards closes at the end of July. The proposal will then be passed to the State Council for review and, barring any major objections, put into force.

Despite the planned changes, an official from the National Office for Science and Technology Awards, said non-Chinese candidates may be subject to other terms and conditions, but that would depend on the feedback received from the public and the State Council.