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Reforms high on agenda at Chinese academies conference

Posted on behalf of Jane Qiu.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao has called for greater academic freedom and independent thinking to boost scientific and technological innovation, according to CCTV, the country’s state television.

Wen made the case in a speech last week at the biennial conference of members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Although he acknowledges the significant progress the country has achieved in the past few decades, Wen warns of the capability gap between China and developed nations. To bridge that gap, he says, China needs an environment that encourages individuality and critical thinking. “A society without respect for individuality is bound to lack vitality and creativity,” he said.

Indeed, there is an overwhelming feeling in China that institutional issues, especially political interference, are the main obstacles to unleashing the creative potential of country’s vast scientific workforce.

At the meeting, scientists lamented that officials control most of the resources and have the ultimate say in funding decisions. “Expert evaluation exists in name only in most cases,” Du Shanyi, a materials scientist at the Harbin Institute of Technology, told China Science Daily.

The conference also held a closed session on reforms of the membership system. This was in response to the widespread criticism that the prestigious membership, which is supposed to represent the best of the country’s research, is often associated with excessive material and political benefits, and that the selection process can be plagued by intensive lobbying and even bribery (see ‘Chinese academies promise cleaner elections‘).

Bai Chunli, president of CAS, delivered a report that resulted from more than a year’s research, surveys and discussion on the matter — conducted by a team consisting of members and non-members. The details of the proposed reforms are yet to be disclosed, but Bai told Guangming Daily that a central theme is to keep the membership title as a pure academic honour and separate it from any material advantages.

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