China faces science reform challenges, including favoritism

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In this Policy Forum, Cong Cao and Richard P. Suttmeier highlight the immense work and challenges China will encounter as it attempts to reform its scientific and technological (S&T) development strategy. A related Perspective highlights issues of favoritism in Chinese research that pose an additional difficulty in this arena. Advances in China's S&T policy space have surged over the past decades, yet recently, Chi­nese political leaders became concerned that this forward momentum was more "technological catch-up" than genuine innovation. Therefore, policies since 2013 have intended to radically reform the nation's research institu­tions and broader innovation system. Under a new financial scheme, the nation's S&T programs have been reorganized to use gov­ernment R&D expenditures more efficiently and to complete the translation of research to commercialization more effectively. The country has undergone institutional and project management changes, including an initiative that reorganizes the Chinese Academy of Science's more than 100 institutes into four ma­jor thematic categories. In terms of technology transfer, the Chinese government has also approved policy that would allow aca­demics greater freedom to do part-time work with companies. Despite these promising reforms, the authors note that the autonomy of the resulting committees, institutions and other bodies is unclear. The reforms subject sci­entists to organizational churn that may be counterproductive, Cao and Suttmeier say, concluding that whether these approaches will function well within the framework of Chinese political landscape remains to be seen.

In a related Perspective, Yu Xie focuses on a recent study showing that election of membership to the two most prestigious sci­entific organizations in China appears to be influ­enced by "guanxi," essentially a person's social network associated with their hometown. The study found that sharing the same place of origin with selection committee members boosts a candidate's probability of election success by about 40%. Xie notes that similar favoritism in science has been found in studies of other cultures, and emphasizes that this latest work "remind[s] us that science is ultimately a social institution affecting, and affected by, human behavior."

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