Chinese Academic Snubbed at Home, Lauded in the U.S.

An outspoken Chinese scientist who was passed over two years ago by China's Academy of Sciences has been scooped up by the United States National Academy of Sciences as a non-voting member.

The news prompted netizens to take a harsh look at China's academic world, with some accusing Chinese academia of corruption and needing reform.

Shi Yigong, a professor and dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, was elected one of 21 foreign associates at the National Academy of Sciences on April 30, 2013. The elections are based on one's distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, according to the academy.

The news of Shi Yigong's election by the US academy has triggered another debate online. (Image from Sina Weibo)

The news of Shi Yigong's election by the US academy has triggered another debate online. (Image from Sina Weibo)

In 2011, the Chinese Academy of Sciences surprised many when it left Shi off its list of academicians, the top honor it awards to Chinese scientists in recognition for their achievements. Many suspected [zh] at the time that the snub had something to do with the outspoken criticism that Shi, who left his previous post at Princeton University in 2008 for Tsinghua University and renounced his US citizenship three years later, had for China's research funding system.

In the editorial published in 2010, which Shi co-authored with Rao Yi, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University, the two argued that although government research funds in China have been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent, the growth hasn't helped promote scientific development in China as it should have due to the unfair allocation in research funding, which has slowed down the potential pace of innovation in China.

Rao was also passed over by the academy, and Shi and Rao's exclusion triggered public discussion on how academicians are selected in China. According to an interview by the Global Times, China's process for selecting academicians has many problems: for example, academicians stop conducting research once they win the title, and they use that title to gain more research funding.

The news of Shi’s election by the US academy has renewed the debate. User “Jinlin Baguazhou” commented [zh] on China’s most popular microblogging site Sina Weibo:


This is the shame for the Chinese academic field, also a slap in the face to the Chinese scientific field and Chinese Academy of Sciences. Well done!

“Fen 1234” accused [zh] China’s academic world of having the wrong priorities:


Shi Yigong was elected to the American academy, why such an outstanding talent failed to be elected in China? By Chinese standards, the academicians in the US doesn’t have any real talent, [because] they don’t know how to pull votes, or treat others or give gifts. It is no surprise that they fail to be enrolled. The Americans value academic achievements in academician candidates instead of relationships like in China, Shi’s case has proved once again that Chinese scientific community are jealous of talents.

A lecturer from Qingdao University, “hangming kantianxia”, echoed [zh]:


Academic achivement is not the priority in Chinese university system, often times interpersonal relationships play an important role. Professor Shi’s example is not the only case. It indicates that there’s a problem in the talent-employment system in the universities. It’s a deep-rooted problem that can’t be solved overnight. Perhaps this is why there hasn’t been any internationally recognized professors from China in the past decades.

Beijing Times commentator Zhang Tiankan urged for [zh] the reform of the academician system:


Although the election of foreign associates to the US National Academy of Sciences and the selection of academicians by the Chinese Academy of Sciences are not necessarily related, the different results are worthy of the reflection and study of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. To attract talent and to become a leading player in the academic field, the reform of the academician system is necessary.


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