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UPDATED: July 3, 2014 NO. 3 JANUARY 16, 2014
Overhauling the Academician System
China aims to reform the election and management system for its top academic honor
By Tang Yuankai

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

Chen Jiaer, a CAS academician and former President of Peking University, said that candidates for CAS membership can be recommended by academicians, and also by organizations such as the Ministry of Education and the China Association of Science and Technology.

According to the CAE's rules on new member selection adopted in December 2012, candidates can be recommended by its academicians, eligible employers or national academic societies.

Both the CAS and the CAE require academicians to understand candidates' research areas, academic contributions and ethics as well as recommending candidates that meet standards rather than those who have engaged in coveting the favors of already anointed academicians. Every academician can recommend no more than two candidates, and every candidate ought to be nominated by at least three academicians.

While the impartiality of individual academicians may be compromised by such canvassing, that of organizations is very likely to be influenced by departmentalism. Chen said that out of departmental interests, some organizations may recommend more candidates than they should, or possibly even candidates not up to standard.

In 2003, Gu Haibing, a professor at the Renmin University of China, was commissioned by the government to study the academician system.

Gu found that academicians' powers over allocating research funding and evaluating research results could be abused, which can result in ineffective use of research funds and academic corruption, and may in turn stifle innovation.

In 2012, the biennial conference of science and engineering academicians co-hosted by the CAS and the CAE was held in Beijing. Reform proposals were put forth at the meeting, such as making the title of academician an honor with no material benefits, keeping the selection process independent and clearly defining the rights and responsibilities of those providing recommendations.

Another complaint about the academician selection process is the high percentage of government officials selected. For instance, in 2009, more than 85 percent of the 48 new CAE members were incumbent officials or corporate executives, most of whom held positions above the rank of department head.

Lei Zhidong, an academician with the CAE, worried that for officials who are candidates for academician titles, it is very difficult to tell whether their achievements should be credited to their team as a whole or their individual efforts.

Some improvements have been made to the academician selection process in response to this. For instance, of the 104 academicians elected to the CAS and the CAE last year, only three were high-ranking government officials or corporate executives.

Reluctant retirement

Last November, 80-year-old CAE member Shen Guofang applied for retirement from his research position at Beijing Forestry University, but his application was turned down.

Although there is a mandatory retirement age for almost everyone else in the country, one does not exist for academicians.

"No government document has specified when academicians should retire, and no employer wants their academicians to retire either," Shen said.

Some employers do not want them to leave as they can bring benefits to their organizations such as research funds. Because of the tangible and intangible benefits that they can expect from having academicians, some provincial and municipal governments, universities and companies compete to hire academicians by offering them generous pay and perks. On the other hand, some academicians, often lured in by the extra income, do not want to retire either.

Official statistics show that most of the 1,557 CAS and CAE members are between 70 and 89 years old. In spite of this, academicians on the whole still seem to lead active careers.

According to an article that appeared in May 2012 in Study Times, a newspaper published by the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, the 783 academicians with the CAE held a total of 5,610 part-time positions, averaging 7.2 per person.

Wang Xuan (1937-2006), a late academician with both the CAS and CAE, once said that he was no longer creative after the age of 55, and this holds true for many academicians.

Implementing an academician retirement and exit system will encourage academicians to contribute to the progress of science rather than resting on their past laurels, said Ouyang Zhongcan, a CAS academician.

"Academician is only a title, and that title lasts a lifetime. The retirement of academicians we are talking about now is for them to leave from their current professional positions and duties," said 81-year-old Qin Boyi, a senior academician with the CAE.

Nine years ago, Qin retired from the Academy of Military Medical Sciences. Since then, he has pursued personal interests such as traveling. He is said to be the only academician in the country that has actually retired.

Currently, Qin is a senior academician, a title that the CAE gives to its academicians above 80 years old. According to charters of the CAS and the CAE, a senior academician cannot hold an academic leadership position, and cannot recommend or elect new academicians, but still has other rights and duties relating to the title of academician and still can attend academician meetings.

However, Qin said that the right time to retire should better be decided by academicians themselves. He said that Isaac Newton no longer did research after a certain age, whereas Madame Curie had been conducting research until the last minute of her life.

Email us at: tangyuankai@bjreview.com

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