“The annual performance assessment system is critical relevant to the interests of scientific researchers”: Interview with Yong Zhao, director of Information Research Center of China Agricultural University (2 part)

We continue with the second part of the interview with Yong Zhao that began on May 18.

(Archivoz) What do you think of the research evaluation reform in China? What is the influence to Chinese Universities and academics?

(Yong Zhao) The reform of scientific research evaluation closely relates to the construction of scientific research integrity system. It is the baton of scientific research development, allowing scientists to do their own work well and universities develop their education function and social service function.

In September 2020, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jingping mentioned “Four Look Forward” (English) at the Scientists’ Form: “I hope numerous scientists and technology workers will take up this historical responsibility, determinedly look toward the frontiers of global S&T, look toward the main economic battlegrounds, look toward major national needs, look toward the people’s lives and health, and incessantly march forward in the breadth and depth of S&T”. These four aspects are most important. The value of your scientific research, regardless of basic knowledge or application field, actually depends on whether it can solve the problems related to these four aspects.

A big difference between China’s scientific research evaluation and that of the western countries is that it relates directly to the salary of scientific researchers. Chinese universities have staff performance assessment every year. If you fail to meet the standard, your performance salary will be deducted. Unlike the contract system, the annual performance assessment system is critical relevant to the interests of scientific researchers, and it is highly concerned.

(Archivoz) About the evaluation of scientific research, are there any differences between China and other countries?

(YZ) The differences of research evaluation system between China and other countries essentially depend on the national policy, research environment, cultural differences and the economic development. It is not easy to make a comparison. The United States also experienced academic misconduct and fraud, which urged its system construction and formed a good research environment. The withdrawal of Haruko Obokata’ paper in Nature and the suicide of her tutor are driven by Japan’s scientific research environment and culture. Scientific research evaluation is an important part of the construction of national innovation system, and is closely integrated with R&D (Research & Development) level, research investment and the S&T strategy. We should not ignore these factors when we compare China and other countries.

China’s scientific research system is government-led national system, which is quite different from the foreign countries. The R&D investments between China and other countries are also different. After all, China is still a developing country, and its annual investment in R&D is not as much as that of western developed countries. China need to put the money where it is needed most. Therefore, the assessment of scientific research evaluation will be very strict. However, I do not think the evaluation of scientific research in other countries is more lax than that of China. When I was a doctoral student at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, I learned that the evaluation indicators of the tutors in this university include the time of guiding students, the amount of papers published by tutors and students, and so on. As a policy and tool, scientific research evaluation is used all over the world. We are wrong to assume that the countries outside China are relaxing and free, some countries are even stricter than China.

In a word, we should look at the differences from a more macro perspective. Simple comparison is meaningless. Moreover, the reform of China’s evaluation system is in line with international standards, which is a major trend. For example, the time of evaluation cycle of UK REF and Australia ERA is relatively long, and China is extending the cycle time too.

(Archivoz) How do you see the evaluation of scientific research going in the near future? What are the opportunities looking ahead for the evaluation of scientific research in China Higher Education?

(YZ) The future development of China’s scientific evaluation relates closely to the “Two Centenary Goals”. Scientific research evaluation is heteronomy, and the evaluation came from the government and the University. While self-discipline means that, researchers will devote themselves to work and do not need to be evaluated externally. The balance between them depends on the country’s strong material base and GDP level.

When we achieved “Two Centenary Goals”, I believe the scientific research evaluation at that time is totally different from today. With the enhancement of scientific research strength and scientific research self-confidence, the role of scientific research evaluation (as heteronomy) in the development of science will become less important, whereas the self-discipline of researchers will play an increasingly important role. The intensity and complexity of many evaluation methods will be reduced. Researchers engage in scientific research by their interest and nature, which would be the perfect state.

In the new stage of development, China is facing many opportunities and challenges. With the development of S&T, such as aerospace, COVID-19, large equipment, etc., China gradually has a stronger voice in the world. In particular, with the global outbreak of the pandemic, China quickly developed the vaccine, which represents our S&T strength. How to protect “the sparks of fire”? How to ensure the healthy growth of scientific research? It is necessary to punish the misconduct of scientific research to ensure the fairness and justice of scientific research, which is exactly the role of scientific research evaluation. As a result, the reform policies on scientific research evaluation and integrity issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the State Council and the General Office of the CPC Central Committee are all new measures in response to the new era to ensure the long-term sustainable development of scientific research.

Furthermore, there is a “Punctuated Equilibrium Theory” in the field of public policy, that is, the policy change will be in the stage of stagnation and gradual change for a long time, but there will be a large-scale mutation in the short term, and the monopoly will be broken due to the change of public attention. In short, major focus events can lead to policy changes. At present, there are many major events in China’s S&T community, including positive events (enhanced S&T strength) and negative events (academic misconduct). From the perspective of policy and system construction, these events are great opportunities for the reform of scientific research evaluation system.

(Archivoz) Do you have any other thoughts or suggestions?

(YZ)

  1. From an international point of view, the top four rankings have done very well. From the domestic point of view, how to improve the national scientific research evaluation system? How to improve the evaluation system of each university and department further? This is a hierarchical issue. We cannot simply focus on the macro or middle level. I think more problems are at the micro level, so scientific evaluation system must be stratified. Currently China does not consider stratification in scientific research evaluation, but focuses more on classification, such as the classification between comprehensive university and professional university mentioned previously.
  2. In this great era of change, China is playing a leading role in many fields and it is inevitable for China to expose some problems that other countries do not have. We cannot learn from the experience of other countries. Unlike US, its economists and sociologists promote the development of the whole society by studying economic system, social thoughts, etc. China’s current situation is problem oriented. A host of problems forces us to change, reform, formulate policies and find solutions. Government need to formulate sound policies, and academics need to explore new methods and theories.
  3. Inter-discipline is an important form of scientific research and an important driving force of S&T innovation. How to evaluate inter-discipline? This is a very big challenge. In 2020, Ministry of Education of the PRC added the category “inter-discipline” to the list of national disciplines accessible for academic degrees. Inter-discipline became the 14th first class discipline. It is under construction and everyone is talking about what subjects it will cover. Since it has become a discipline, we have to evaluate it. However, how to evaluate it? This is definitely a great challenge. Many attempts have also been made in the field of Library and Information Science. In recent years, the National Social Science Fund of China has funded many related projects, most of which remain at the theoretical level and lack practical application.

Interview conducted by: Ke Wu

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