Step aside, Yang Zhenning and Li Zhengdao: the Chinese academic community finally has someone new to applaud.
On October 5, the 85-year-old scientist Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, making her China’s first Nobel laureate in science. Tu discovered artemisinin, one of the greatest breakthroughs in the worldwide battle against malaria, during a health project in the 1970s.
But even while marveling at that feat, domestic media have dwelled Tu’s lack of academic credentials. Now a professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tu has no Ph.D, no overseas study experience and has been repeatedly denied the title of academician.
Local media describe her as “the ‘three withouts’ scientist.”
While Tu’s lack of Ph.D and overseas study experience can mostly be attributed to closed periods in the Chinese history, her lack of a title is more puzzling.
System of Honor?
Established in 1993, the academician title is bestowed on full members of China’s two leading academic institutions: the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE). As ministry-level institutions, the title is considered the highest national honor for a scientist.
The lifelong title also carries a considerable prestige and the opportunity for material benefits.
Academicians in China enjoy a monthly tax-free subsidy of 200 yuan from the nation. Local work units also give out monthly subsidies ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 yuan. The State Council also requires that senior academicians older than 85 receive a tax-free annual subsidy of 10,000 yuan.
Academicians are typically granted treatment equal to vice-ministerial level government officials, and receive preference over common people in both transportation and medical treatment.
The title essentially ensures that scholars no longer need to worry about their future. Universities and scientific research institutions scramble to recruit them – as well as the tens of millions of yuan in research funds the title brings.
Wuhan University of Technology claimed that academicians, as long as they take office in the university, can obtain 1 million yuan in scientific research funds, a 200-square-meter apartment and a 500,000 yuan relocation bonus.
In 2013, Jinan University posted a recruitment ad stating that new hires with an academician title would receive an annual salary of 2 million yuan, a 1 million yuan relocation bonus, free housing and a guaranteed job for their spouse.
Guizhou University is even more generous, offering a 1.5 million yuan fund for apartment purchase, 5 million yuan in research funds, 10 million yuan in scientific platform construction funds and an annual salary of 1.8 million yuan.
Gu Haibing, a professor at the school of economics in Renmin University of China, said China and Russia are the only countries using the academician system. Equivalent academies of sciences in the US, UK, Japan, Germany and France consist solely of members and grant no economic or administrative benefits.
“Being elected to the member of a science society is more like an acknowledgement of the electee’s performance. Members of the societies not only receive no subsidies, they must also pay membership fees to avoid forced retirement. The main privilege that members get is better access to scientific journals and books,” Gu said.
“The privilege tied to the title in China is why so many people will go to any length to become recognized as an academician,” said Lu Bai, executive vice-president of the Tsinghua University School of Medicine.
Tu is hardly the only accomplished scientist being passed over for the coverted academician title.
People’s Daily explored the topic in a 2011 editorial titled “Why did Tu Youyou fail the academician election?”
“You might find some inspiration when looking at the personalities and scholastic styles of those who failed in the ‘game.’ Yuan Longping, the world-known agricultural scientist, spent most of his time in the rice field, studying on super rice. Li Aizhen, the scientist who has been dedicated to a life in the lab, might still be unknown to most Chinese if not elected a foreign academician by the US-based National Academy of Sciences. Tu Youyou, the Nobel Prize winner, is unsociable, unflattering and to speak frankly, cares little for anyone else’s rank, according to Li Lianda, an old colleague of Tu,” the People’s Daily wrote.
“In sharp contrast, a considerable percentage of government officials and senior managers are nominated academicians.”
“The election of academicians in China has been focused too much on the candidates’ interpersonal relationships rather than their academic achievements,” said Jin Dongyan, a professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Hong Kong.
Rao Yi, a distinguished neurobiologist who failed the academician election in 2011, was acknowledged for his boldness in speaking out.
Having studied at the University of California and taught at Washington University and Northwestern University before moving back to China, Rao regards his failure as a warning from the system.
“If you take a look at the candidates list and notice the rankings, you’ll see this is a systematic crackdown on professors with overseas teaching backgrounds. I’m not the only one,” Rao said.
The backgrounds of most elected academicians remain a mystery to the public.
In his research about China’s academician system, Professor Gu Haibing pointed out that information about elected academicians by CAS and CAE is selectively disclosed to the public and normally contains only names and work units to avoid exposing the nominees’ positions or work experience.
“You can easily find out that most of the academicians are administrative officials in scientific research institutions or university presidents, sometimes even senior executives from state-owned enterprises. Under current system, they have access to more resources compared to scholars and could yield their power to facilitate application,” Gu said.
“Are there any Chinese academicians who are not Party members?” netizens asked on Hupu.com.
Trend of Correction
Glaring flaws and mounting public pressures have the two authorities seeking a way to correct the academician selection system and burnish the reputations of current members.
Last year, the CAS and CAE adjusted their rules and stipulated that administrative bodies such as ministries and commissions, universities and municipal governments will no longer be able to recommend candidates.
Meanwhile, officials above the department-level in Party and government offices as well as civil servants will not be accepted for election. Candidates will have to go through a final appraisal process, and only those who pass everything can be elected.
Beijing Youth Daily reported on the amendment in August. This year, 157 candidates were selected in academician election, a dramatic decrease in number compared to 2013.
“I don’t want to deny the academician system. There are reasons for it to be there, and it will certainly continue to exist,” Rao said.