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Chinese academy gets second chance to elect eminent biologist

Posted on behalf of Jane Qiu.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) on 20 May announced the list of candidates for the biennial selection of its prestigious membership. None is attracting more intense speculation than Shi Yigoing, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who applied for the membership unsuccessfully two years ago.

The speculation is partly fuelled by the US National Academy of Sciences’ announcement last month that it awarded membership to Shi, whose specialty is protein crystallography, for his “distinguished and continuing achievements in original research”. This has renewed a heated debate in the Chinese press and blogosphere on the criteria and selection process of Chinese academies.

In 2008, Shi gave up his professorship at Princeton University in New Jersey to take up the position as at Tsinghua. Since his return he has published a total of 12 papers in the journals Nature, Science and Cell, and more in other journals.

The main reason for the CAS 2011 decision to reject Shi’s membership application, according to Muming Poo, director of the CAS Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, was that candidates must make a significant contribution to China in addition to academic accomplishment. “Since Shi hadn’t been back for long, he didn’t score high in this regard,” he says.

But that might not be the whole story: Shi is also an outspoken critic of China’s science culture and institutions and a driving force of reforms, and his outspokenness has earned him enemies. In 2010, he and Rao Yi, a biologist at Peking University, wrote a fierce critique of China’s research culture and funding system in Science.

In a blog post in 2011 in response to the selection decision against Shi and other outstanding scientists, Rao wrote that the outcome is indicative of the predicament faced by many high-flying returnees from abroad. “They are perceived as threats and rejected by the scientific establishment in China,” he wrote.

The CAS congratulated Shi for his induction into its US counterpart but told Xinhua, China’s state news agency, that the two academies are independent organizations with different criteria for membership.

Critics say, however, that the incident should trigger a rethinking on whether the selection process is fair or truly rewards academic excellence. An online commentator going by the name Dmlprince wrote that it’s tragic to see scientists much less accomplished than Shi get selected as members. Another, named Qiudy, wrote that the membership system needs to be reformed for China to attract distinctive scientists from overseas.

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