Research and embezzlement
China’s rising R&D budget makes science spending a rich target for corruption which in turn hinders innovation.Among China’s high-profile corruption cases, an investigation of provincial science administrators would not seem the most consequential. But one case in Guangdong province hints at the scale of corruption and waste that plague China’s state-led science and technology system. Compared to China’s rigid education system corruption is an under-appreciated—but perhaps as important—obstacle to innovation.
On March 14th Guangdong’s anti-corruption commission announced that the provincial science department’s deputy party secretary, Zhang Ming, was being investigated for “serious disciplinary violations”. His was the latest name added to a case that includes more than 50 officials suspected of taking bribes from companies and researchers in exchange for government research and development (R&D) subsidies and grants worth millions of dollars. According to news reports (in Chinese) of the investigation, the local officials and their middlemen in Foshan, a city in Guangdong, pocketed 30% of the subsidies they handled.
As graft targets go, China’s R&D spending offers rich pickings. Such spending rose from $10.8 billion to $168 billion between 2000 and 2012. In 2012 the country devoted 1.98% of its GDP to R&D, edging out the European Union (at 1.97%) for the first time, according to estimates by the OECD.
Some experts believe the bureaucrat-managed system for allocating research grants is smothering innovation. In 2010 two prominent Chinese scientists, Rao Yi of Peking University and Shi Yigong of Tsinghua University, wrote in an editorial in Science that “to obtain major grants in China, it is an open secret that doing good research is not as important as schmoozing with powerful bureaucrats and their favourite experts.” Consequently, “a significant proportion of researchers” spend so much time on building these connections that they can hardly be found in their own labs.
The largest government grants, such as those from the national R&D programmes managed by the Ministry of Science and Technology, often remain as opaque as the rest of the bureaucracy. This situation may change soon, as the central government seems dissatisfied with the return on its ever-increasing R&D investment. On March 12th the State Council released guidelines on transparency in the allocation of research funding. Such information should be “scrutinized by the public”, says the document (in Chinese). Given the Communist Party’s determination to root out corruption, says Cao Cong at the University of Nottingham, research grants will gradually become more transparent.
As part of an ongoing anti-corruption campaign, the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced (in Chinese) on March 15th that it plans a new round of inspections, including, intriguingly, sending a “special inspection” team to the science ministry. Last year the inspectors discovered (in Chinese) several corruption leads that led to the downfall of some senior officials. It won’t be surprising if they find corrupt conduct inside the ministry, Mr Cao suggests.