Disciplining movement questions science budget rules
By Hepeng Jia and Tao He/Beijing, China
A fiscal disciplining movement in China has highlighted the fragile management of the country's science budget, scientists and experts say.
The movement - Fighting unauthorised funds - was launched in mid-June. It is the largest action nationwide in the past 30 years to eliminate spending by public institutions which is not recorded in the government budget.
Science and technology organisations such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), as well as some research wings of central ministries have been ranked as key targets for inspection by the finance ministry.
The movement is accompanied by the decreasing fiscal revenues and increased government spending in science and technology (S&T) to fight the financial crisis. The S&T budget of the central government for 2009 will rise by 25.6 per cent to 146.1 billion yuan (US$21.5 billion), though government revenues nationwide decreased by 6.7 per cent to 2.7 trillion yuan in the first five months of 2009.
The disciplining move is aimed at striking corruption and fund misuse in public institutions.
Insiders say some research institutes and universities have used research funding to distribute allowances to staff. For example, in 2004, the National Audit Office found among the 18 major public universities inspected, 14 hid a total of 616 million yuan in revenues, including revenues from research funding.
But the situation in the science and technology sector is more complicated.
'The unauthorised use of funding in research institutes could be a result of too rigid and unreasonable management of the research budget,' says Zhou Jianzhong, an associate research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Management of CAS (CASIPM).
China's research budget rules often make very strict requirements, such as how much money should be spent in how many months of research, how many international visits can be made, and how much money can be used for inviting collaborating researchers.
But the ever changing nature of the research process has made strict compliance with the budget rules impossible. In order to be prepared for unexpected situations, some scientists reserve money saved from earlier research projects or spend money beforehand, but this could be defined as punishable unauthorised funds under budget rules, Zhou explains.
Another problem is personal deductions and institutions' overhead fees from scientists' research funding, which is quite common in China, according to Li Xiaoxuan of CASIPM.
'Proper overheads [paid] from the research funding by the hiring institutions for management are reasonable, but if the institutions and scientists make their deductions as the major part of their income, this could be seriously against fiscal rules,' Li told Chemistry World.
To solve the question, a more flexible rule on the research budget is needed, Zhou suggested.