October 23, 2013, by Tony Hong

Reforming China’s Science and Technology System

By Dr. Cao Cong,

Associate Professor and Reader, at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies,

The University of Nottingham UK.

Despite more money, better trained talent, and sophisticated equipment, China’s domestic innovation system is still underperforming. The root of these problems can be found at the macro, meso, and micro levels of governance of the science and technology (S&T) system. China’s S&T governance structure is highly bureaucratized as in other areas. At its apex is the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (CCPCC), which leads China’s S&T Enterprise through the Leading Group on Science, Technology, and Education (LGSTE). The Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) is another overarching agency overseeing S&T affairs, from the formulation of policies, plans (guihua), and programs (jihua) to budgeting and allocation of resources for some national research and development (R&D) programs.

With the reform of the S&T system in 1985, China’s science bureaucracy started to expand its turf. The State Science and Technology Commission (SSTC) extended its role from formulation and implementation of policies at the macro level to the initiation and management of programs and projects and associated resources at the meso-level.

Macro, meso and micro level problems

At the macro level the LGSTE has not fully functioned in coordination between agencies and central and local governments. Ad hoc in nature, the LGSTE is not involved in the budgeting process. It has never issued an official document in its own name and has failed to take actions on interruptions of the S&T system.

Ineffectiveness in macro level coordination influences distribution of resources at the meso level. There is no uniform, national quality control standard, nor is there much exchange of information about projects funded across different agencies. China’s research culture gives too much competitive advantage to established researchers and those who maintain close relations (guanxi) with government officials, which increases research-funding inequality and concentration. A substantial portion of public funding at almost every ministry is funnelled to favourable scientists, often well-established, through earmarks or applications received informally, rather than through rigorous and fair peer reviews.

At the micro level there are flawed evaluations and incentives. China has a weak culture of performance evaluation. There is an overwhelming “publish or perish” orientation, especially toward publications in journals catalogued by the Science Citation Index (SCI). Although this may have contributed to growth in China’s international papers, SCI publications have become an inappropriate yardstick in evaluation of research programs, institutions, and scientists. The Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China ranks universities and institutes by the number of SCI papers. Many institutions mechanically evaluate and promote scientists according to their number of SCI publications and impact factors of the journals.

Emphasis on SCI papers and impact factors in performance evaluation at the micro level informs funding decisions at the meso level. Those who are capable of producing higher SCI–impact factor papers tend to stand out in the competition. As a result, scientists are motivated to publish for the sake of publications, performance evaluations and grants rather than finding genuine solutions to societal problems.

Promotion has become a rent-seeking and rent-making opportunity for a small number of persons in the review panel who have power to partly determine the destiny of candidates. At some institutions, the process is neither transparent nor fair, as evaluation regulations are not clear or not strictly followed. It may involve corruption, as the promotion could be obtained with guanxi, administrative or bureaucratic power, and even money.

Possible solutions to the problems

China’s strategic objectives to become an innovation-oriented nation have been set, but insufficiency in macro level coordination, meso level funding, and micro level performance evaluation reduces the effectiveness and efficiency of the S&T system. Distribution of resources at the meso-level is problematic owing to the lack of coordination at the macro level. Maintaining information flow between ministries is critical; so is seeking accountability of those in charge of such programs.

External reviews of China’s S&T system reform in the mid-1990s and innovation policy in the early 21st century suggest that China may draw on international experience in reforming its S&T system. Most recently, invited by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and the Ministry of Finance, an independent international panel reviewed funding management at the NSFC. While applauding the NSFC research-funding mechanism, the panel called on the NSFC to improve protection of confidentiality of the review process and to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest.

To improve, China’s S&T system should follow international practice and maintain its integrity. Performance evaluation at some institutions has gradually introduced international review. For example, the CAS is in the process of having more of its institutes scrutinized by its international peers.

But immediate actions must be taken to solve problems at the micro level as well. The conflict-of-interest policy must be reinforced for both program evaluation and individual performance appraisal. Impacts of bureaucratic power and guanxi should be minimized. A more reasonable reward system must be introduced that uses peer review rather than counting of publications and impact factors, to incentivize researchers to solve problems rather than just focus on publications.

The LGSTE is supposed to lead in defining roles and responsibilities of agencies and coordinating intergovernmental relations during policy implementation. But it remains to be seen whether coordination of China’s S&T could be resolved without institutional change. Operational rules, regulations, and procedures will need to be set up by appropriate government agencies. Efforts are needed to monitor implementation, get feedback, and revise rules and regulations. Challenges in governance of China’s S&T system have existed for so long and the inertia to maintain status quo is so strong. It is time for leadership to show political will.

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