Published online 23 February 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.111

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China revokes top science award

But researchers fear fraud case may be the tip of the iceberg.

Still life of 100 RMB (RMB is also known as Chinese Yuan or Renminbi) notes, taken in Nanjing, Jiangsu, ChinaSome scientists hope that the rescinding of a national science prize in China marks the start of a crackdown on academic fraud.Scott Brauer / Alamy

China's government has for the first time rescinded a prestigious Chinese science award after an investigation found the recipient guilty of academic misconduct.

On 1 February, China's National Office for Science and Technology Awards, part of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), announced that it was withdrawing the Scientific and Technological Progress Award (SSTPA) given to Li Liansheng in 2005. Li, a former professor of mechanical engineering at the Xi'an Jiaotong University (XJTU) in the Shaanxi province in central China, had received a runner-up award for his research on the production and commercialization of scroll compressors, which are used in air conditioners. But the university fired Li in March 2010 after an inquiry found evidence of fraud in papers he published about the compressors, and false claims about the profitability of his scientific invention.

The SSTPA office has asked Li to return the prize money of 100,000 renminbi (US$15,000).

There are currently five types of national science and technology award in China, which include natural sciences, technical invention and the esteemed SSTPA. More SSTPAs are made than any other category, with over 200 being awarded this year.

Although it is the first time the government has revoked a science award, researchers say the move does not mean that winners will necessarily be subject to closer scrutiny in future.

According to Fang Shimin, a former biochemist who runs the New Threads website that aims to expose academic fraudsters, Li's case is unique for many reasons. Fang says that it is unlikely that the grant would have been withdrawn had the 83-year-old retired XJTU professor of mechanical engineering Chen Yongjiang and five of his colleagues not pursued the matter for more than four years. The move also seems to have been prompted by Chinese Central Television's coverage of the affair on its prime-time investigative news programme Focused Interviews — Li was fired by XJTU shortly after the programme was broadcast.

"There are no signs that MOST or other science-funding agencies are more actively investigating or punishing academic fraud," says Fang. "We have received no word about many accusations we have submitted to the agencies." Fraud committed by more senior figures than Li still goes unpunished, he says.

Li Xia, a science-policy expert at Shanghai Jiaotong University, says that MOST has also been widely criticized for the way it has distributed big research grants. Revoking Li Liansheng's award may be an attempt to deflect some of that criticism, he says.

Power of the pen

In September 2010, two prominent Chinese scientists, Rao Yi of Peking University in Beijing and Shi Yigong of Tsinghua University in Beijing, published an editorial in Science1 that alleged that factors such as personal connections, rather than excellent science, are often influential in determining who receives large research funding. The editorial reportedly attracted the attention of top Chinese leaders.

Neither Li Liansheng nor Chen responded to Nature 's requests for an interview, but Chen celebrated the science ministry's move on his blog on the popular-science website ScienceNet.cn.

During an interview (in Chinese) with China's Science and Technology Daily newspaper, Chen said that the Li case had still not been probed deeply enough by the university. "Other people involved in the case have not been investigated."

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But Jia Jianming, a spokesman for the XJTU, says that the university has thoroughly investigated the case and the award had been rescinded as a direct result of the university's formal report to MOST. "The reason the scandal has been exposed at all is because of XJTU's transparency rules, which require that the names of all award recipients be made public," says Jia, who argues that without this knowledge, Chen and others would not have been able to pursue the matter.

If funding agencies learn from the experience, says Li Xia, the rescinding of the award could help to bring greater transparency to the awarding of scientific grants. "Revoking more dubious awards, instituting proper peer-review procedures, and cutting links between such awards and academic promotion could curb corruption," he says.

Li Xia points out that an SSTPA given to a company at the centre of an adulterated milk scandal in 2008 has yet to be annulled. Sanlu Group, which was based in Shijiazhuang in the Hebei province, received international attention after it was discovered that its milk product was contaminated with melamine, poisoning thousands. "We hope the rescinding of the award is not just a trick to deal with public pressure, but really a new start to improving academic integrity in China," he told Nature. 

  • References

    1. Shi, Y. & Rao, Y. Science 329, 1128 (2010). | Article | ISI |
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