China science

China’s scientists overworked and underpaid compared with other professions, survey says

  • Survey finds salaries are not keeping pace as top institutions focus on returning overseas talent
  • Pressure to publish and lack of administrative support contributes to workload
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2018, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2018, 11:10pm

China’s scientists are feeling the pinch, despite being at the heart of the country’s strategy to become a global powerhouse in science and technology.

While there are generous packages on offer for returning overseas Chinese scientists, the home-grown variety are feeling overworked and underpaid, according to a survey by the China Association for Science and Technology.

Xian Jiaotong University in northwest China offers young scientists an annual salary of at least 450,000 yuan (US$65,000) as well as a one-time bonus of 1 million yuan if they are deemed to be outstanding.

But the financial package comes with a clear requirement: successful applicants must be part of the “Young Thousand Talents” programme, a recruitment plan to bring overseas Chinese scientists back to the homeland.

Researchers who are not part of the talent plan can expect an annual salary of about 200,000 yuan.

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A medical biologist surnamed Liu works at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where the Chinese college held a career fair in late October to recruit young scientists under 40.

“They were only here for the Young Thousand Talents,” said Liu, who is in his late 20s.

“They won’t even consider scientists who don’t have that title.”

The non-profit China Association for Science and Technology analysed data from 48,099 scientists across China and found dissatisfaction had grown since its last survey in 2013, with a third of respondents admitting their financial burden was the main source of pressure.

Scientists said their income level had declined compared with other professions, while the survey showed they earned an average of 90,985 yuan in 2016, a 23 per cent rise from that of 2012.

That compares with a pay rise of about 50 per cent for China’s private sector during the same period, according to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics.

The survey also showed scientists working 50 hours a week, 10 more than the legal maximum and slightly higher than the 49 hours a week reported in the previous survey.

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“It could be worse from what I know. Salaries for young scientists have barely changed in the past decade in my university,” said a robotics professor surnamed Li at Soochow University in Suzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu.

“For young scientists whose salary is all his or her income, it can be tough. I don’t feel too much pressure to support my family since I also work for corporations,” he said.

Li also serves as chief scientist for a robotics company he co-founded and sold to a listed company in China.

“For engineering scientists, their salary from research institutes or universities may be just a small part of their income,” he said.

China’s scientists are also burdened by a workload which is increased by an evaluation system which relies heavily on publication of academic papers.

Nearly half of the sampled researchers agreed that “there are serious problems in the science evaluation system”, while more than 90 per cent admitted the main goal of publishing academic papers was “to comply with the rules”.

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Liu said that Xian Jiaotong University, a C9 college – China’s version of the Ivy League – still assessed scientists by their titles, which were largely decided by the number of academic papers they have published and their education background.

China’s science community and policymakers made it clear earlier this year that they were working on the assessment problem.

“Our talent assessment system is not reasonable,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech in May at the annual meeting of the nations’ two biggest research arms, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering.

“The system still evaluates scientists by numbers of academic papers, titles or education background. We can’t let the heavy paperwork distract talented scientists, or have their hands tied by the formalities,” Xi said.

Last month, the Ministry of Science and Technology issued a notice to research institutes across China telling them to stop “judging scientists solely by number of academic papers, titles, awards or educational background”.

A recruiter from Xian Jiaotong University, who requested anonymity, said it was “hard for real change to happen in the assessment system”.

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A biology researcher surnamed Long at Peking University said: “We have seen notices like the October one before. I am not sure whether this one could lead to real change.”

Robotics professor Li said the notice had sparked debate over whether the number of academic papers was a good indicator of ability.

“People are asking, what can we use to evaluate a scientist if we cannot use the academic papers they have published? Shall we just leave that to a committee?” he said.

While the number of highly cited papers can be helpful in assessment, the publish-or-perish culture has contributed to rampant academic misconduct in China which has emerged in recent years.

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In the latest case, Liang Ying, a sociologist from prestigious Nanjing University, has had more than 100 papers retracted by international and Chinese publications.

She is under investigation after China Youth Daily accused her of plagiarism and the duplicate submission of at least 15 of her papers, the university said last month.

“The current assessment system encourages scientists to chase after papers, while eliminating the requirement could lead to a worse system. It’s a dilemma,” Li said.

Besides conducting scientific research, every scientist in China has to deal with everyday chores: applying for funds and filing various assessment reports.

While it is true that all scientists need to apply for funding and report to certain academic committee, researchers in China are complaining about the rigid rules of laboratory management.

“You need receipts for everything, even for consumable items like cables worth just a few bucks,” Li said.

“Sellers are not willing to give official receipts in China, and that means we have to pay with our own money, which can amount to thousands of dollars a year.

“My students in the lab are bored to death doing the claims and reimbursements stuff,” he said. “But a small lab such as mine cannot afford a full-time accountant.”