A group of prominent US-based Chinese scientists met with a high-ranking official from China's government last week to complain about the country's biased and inefficient system for funding life sciences. China is currently finalizing plans for several massive 15-year projects, but the researchers are concerned that not all of these are warranted and that they are absorbing too much of the science and technology budget.

Much of China's research is funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology, but for years the system has been criticized for its inefficiency and lack of transparency.

These criticisms came to a head following China's poor response to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in late 2002. As a result, a number of researchers both inside and outside the country called for the government to set up a Chinese equivalent of the US National Institutes of Health to guide funding in the life sciences (see Nature 428, 679; 200410.1038/428679b).

But last week the science ministry rejected this proposal. Although researchers had worried that the plan would increase China's heavy bureaucracy, its rejection means that the funding system is still in desperate need of reform, they say. “It can't deal with conflicts of interest,” says Haifan Lin, a stem-cell biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “It's not a valid system.”

At last week's meeting, Lin and other members of the Ray Wu Society presented a letter to a senior adviser of Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, signed by 11 members of the society's board and outlining their concerns. The non-profit society, named after a plant biologist and composed of senior Chinese scientists based mainly in the United States, aims to develop the life sciences in China.

They say that their worries have been intensified by the science ministry's plans to assign funding to large projects covering 2006–20 by early next year. “The Chinese system encourages the control of large sums of money by a few people, without fair competition,” says Tian Xu, a geneticist at Yale University and a member of the Wu society's board.

Xu and his society colleagues say that the country's other main funding organization, the National Science Foundation of China, does review projects fairly. But they point out that its annual budget of 2.2 billion renminbi (US$266 million) is small compared with that of the ministry.

Over the next few weeks, Lin and his colleagues will try to ensure that their plea for a better funding mechanism reaches the prime minister. “We are approaching the government at the highest level,” he says.