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UPDATED: July 3, 2014 NO. 27 JULY 3, 2014
Rewriting the Rules
China’s most influential scientific and technological think tanks are rethinking their admissions process
By Yin Pumin

MEETING OF MINDS: The 17th Congress of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the 12th Congress of the Chinese Academy of Engineering opens in Beijing on June 9 (PANG XINGLEI)

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) have redrafted their charters in an effort to improve the selection and management system for academicians.

The amended charters, which were ratified during the biennial congresses of the country's two top think tanks on June 9-13, included modifications to the nomination and exit mechanisms for academicians by barring governments, universities and enterprises from the right to make nominations.

According to previous rules on new member selections of the CAS and the CAE, candidates can be recommended by other academicians, eligible employers or national academic societies. "Organizations such as the Ministry of Education and the China Association of Science and Technology only have the right to recommend candidates to other academicians," said Chen Jiaer, a CAS academician and former President of Peking University.

To cut administrative interference, the new charters deny other organizations of the right to nominate candidates, leaving only incumbent academicians and academic groups commissioned by the two think tanks this privilege.

The move is a response to a reform plan adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November last year, which stated that the system of selection and management for academicians should be modified to help increase the number of younger academicians and phase out the underqualified.

"It is also an attempt to bring China's academician system back to its roots," said Wang Mengshu, a CAE academician and a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University.

Stricter procedures

In China, the title of academician is the highest honor for a scholar. The lifelong title carries a large amount of prestige. CAS and CAE academicians often hold administrative posts and are granted power to allocate academic resources and evaluate academic works. Every two years, the academies select new academicians, and the selection and management regulations are amended. In October 2013, 104 new academicians were elected to the CAS and the CAE, bringing the total combined number of academicians up to 1,545.

However, in recent years these scientific and technological elites, as well as their privileges, have become a source of controversy. In particular, the biennial academician selection has received attention owing to the number of scandals related to it.

During a court hearing on his alleged corruption on September 10, 2013, Zhang Shuguang, former Director of the Transport Bureau under the former Ministry of Railways, confessed to spending 23 million yuan ($3.7 million) on bribing and hiring scholars to compile materials for him in his bid for election to the CAS.

Zhang was nominated as academician in 2007 and 2009, but failed to obtain the title both times. According to media reports, he was only one vote short of his target in the 2009 election. Before Zhang could make his third attempt, he was removed from his post and investigated for accepting bribes in February 2011.

The day after Zhang made his confession, the CAS released a statement saying that it had not received any complaints concerning academicians receiving bribes from Zhang. "If any academician was proven to have taken bribes, the CAS would not tolerate it. We welcome public supervision," it added.

In spite of efforts taken by the CAS to clarify its unawareness about Zhang's actions, public doubts lingered.

According to the previous CAS Charter adopted in 2012, there were two ways to take the first step to becoming a qualified candidate. One could either be recommended by at least three academicians, or by specific government departments and national-level academic institutes.

Chu Junhao, a CAS academician and a researcher with the CAS' Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics, said that under the previous charter, each academician can recommend two candidates at most each year, while departments and academies can recommend a maximum of 60. All new academicians were elected through rounds of anonymous voting by current academicians.

Both the CAS and the CAE require academicians to understand the candidates' research areas, academic contributions and their ethics as well as recommending candidates that meet standards rather than those who have engaged in currying favor with already anointed academicians.

However, while the impartiality of individual academicians may be compromised through canvassing, that of organizations is even more likely to be influenced by departmentalism. Chen with Peking University said that out of departmental interests, some organizations had recommended more candidates than they should, or even nominated candidates who were not up to standard.

In late April last year, about 490 made it to the first round of nominations. "But only a third of them made it to the next," Chu said.

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