A new constitution implemented earlier this month by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) shows a penchant for transparent and accountable governance. Those who drafted it say it will establish norms and a code of conduct to regulate the foundation's work in a democratic fashion, to establish management based on the law, and to ensure the effective use of funds. It is aimed, as senior NSFC policy-maker Liu Zuoyi put it, at “utilizing overseas brainpower and encouraging overseas scientists to participate in China's basic research” in a “rigorous way”.

To draft the constitution, the NSFC studied about 20 legislative documents worldwide, such as the Australian Research Council Act. According to Liu, the constitution guarantees the fairness of funding opportunities by setting out “standards in selecting experts for peer and panel reviews” and “requirements for the management of programmes and results”. Failure in such endeavours has been a long-standing complaint of scientists in China and those thinking of returning to the country.

This is all well and good, but the NSFC already has a reputation for fair funding. Scientists' main complaint with its grants has been that the money is too small to pack a punch. In 2004, it handed out 2.8 billion yuan (US$340 million), a 25% rise over 2003 but still only 1.3% of China's total research and development spending. This money was spread over some 8,300 projects.

Nevertheless, this is a positive step that could make China seem a more comfortable place for the returning scientists on whom the country rests so much of its hopes. But the NSFC's constitution also points to deep problems in other parts of the Chinese funding system. Its impact depends on how well it can inspire other organizations — in particular the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which account for the lion's share of research funding and hence hold the corresponding responsibility for China's scientific future — to take steps to improve the fair and effective deployment of their money. Will such organizations take up the challenge and follow the NSFC's lead?