Scientists usually cut the image of being careful, studious, and focused on their research. In China, some of them have a few other things on their mind: like ripping millions of dollars off the taxpayer, faking research expenses, and running up the official expense account for their family members.
A number of top science officials in the Chinese Communist Party’s official and semiofficial research apparatus have been punished for these activities recently. At least 50 officials in science and technology in Guangdong Province have been sacked recently, with the details of their activities spilling into the press.
There was Wang Kewei, for example, deputy director of the the Singapore-based Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centers, who was put under investigation for “seriously violating the law”, according to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Party’s anticorrupion agency.
Li Xinghua, the director of Guangdong’s Department of Science and Technology, was also investigated last July and was expelled from the Communist Party in January.
Bribes can also be offered: Zhang Shi, director of a research department in Guangdong was punished for taking 680,000 yuan in bribes from two professors and five entrepreneurs. In return, he gave them funding for their research.
The corruption usually works like this: The scientist receives the funding, and then simply uses it for their personal expenses (of those of his family members’); alternatively, scientists can generate fake invoices, being reimbursed by the government for non-project expenses; or they can purchase expensive scientific apparatus, overpay, and get a rebate from the company that sold it to them. The rebate is pocketed by the scientist.
Annual audit reports show that this sort of corruption is rife, according to the state-run Xinhua.
“Having good relationships with officials and their favored experts is more important than doing good research,” wrote Chinese scientists Rao Yi and Shi Yigong in an article in “Science” magazine in China in 2010. Chinese media call it an “open secret.”
In fact, only 40 percent of the funding allocated for scientific research is actually used on research, according to a the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST). The rest goes to non-project related “expenses,” some of them dubious in nature.
Lack of supervision, lack of transparency, and the politicized nature of scientific funding all contribute to the problem.
High Input, Low Output
China has increased research and development funding from between 12 and 20 percent every year over the past 20 years, according to the Global R&D Funding Forecast published by Battelle, a research organization. China spent $258 billion last year, second only to the United States.
But what China got out of it was a disappointment, scientists say.
For example, said Professor Yang Zhongyi at the School of Life Sciences at Sun Yat-sen University, “Sometimes an apparatus that cost several million yuan is just set aside for years until it’s almost dead. Then the university simply gives it away to companies, calling it ‘cooperation with enterprise.’”
In other situations, Yang said, all that funding produces research that has little theoretical or practical value.