Scientists welcome Xi’s call for more research and fewer meetings but admit problems will take time to fix

·4-min read

China’s top scientists broadly welcomed President Xi Jinping’s latest call for researchers to spend more time in labs and less time on events, although some said they often find it hard to avoid promotional activity, non-academic meetings and banquets in the course of their work.

In an address last Friday to the country’s top scientists, engineers and researchers, Xi said that scholars should be freed from “unnecessary distractions, such as meaningless functions, events and administrative paperwork”, saying this was a necessary condition for China to become a technology super power.

Xi said that the country’s top scientists should focus on their own disciplines and avoid too many external responsibilities, in a thinly-veiled criticism of the bureaucratic distractions and outside interests that many of the country’s top science brains become embroiled in.

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Zhong Nanshan, an 84-year-old infectious disease expert and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told state media on Friday that he is sometimes so busy with non-academic meetings that he is forced to conduct his scientific research in the evenings.

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Zhong added that if he cannot attend an event in person, he often has to make a video for it instead. “I once spent two hours recording five of these videos,” he was quoted by state-owned China News Service as saying.

Sun Yutao, a 39-year-old professor focusing on science policy at the Dalian University of Technology, said he is often so busy with administrative work he has to spend his weekends doing academic research. Teaching and other non-research activities take up most of his week days.

Sun said most scientists, in reality, do not need to network with other scientific circles that much, although those responsible “for converting science into applied technology” do need “to get out and meet with people from, for example, business.”

Xi said in his speech that China’s technology officials must grant more autonomy to scientists so that “research institutes and researchers can be unshackled from tedious and unnecessary institutional restrictions”.

Chinese researchers have traditionally been evaluated on the quantity of research they publish and the status of the journals they get published in, and efforts to overhaul their evaluation system only started in 2018.

Xi said reforms to this “paper-only” mindset should cover more criteria, including innovative value and the contribution the research makes to society. He also said research institutes should explore a more flexible salary structure.

Wu Xiangping, an astronomer with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the current evaluation system was a fundamental block to future progress and “restless scientific discovery”.

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“[Currently] after a research project gets funded, it is urged to produce certain ‘outcomes’ in three months, some ‘discoveries’ in about two years and then a ‘leading’ final result in five years. Such a research approach goes against the basic rules of free exploration,” said Wu in a 2019 opinion article for the China Science Daily.

Xi’s speech on Friday also addressed the problem of how academics are currently promoted. He said only the most capable people should take charge of major projects and that authorities should not pay too much attention to which particular organisation scientists are affiliated with.

Sun said Xi had touched on some of the biggest current drawbacks in China’s academic environment but that the problems would be hard to fix in the short term. Being a scientist in China can sometimes be hard, it “lacks a decent salary and professional norms,” said Sun.

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