Caixin
Dec 13, 2016 07:37 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

Top Chinese Academics Launch Country’s First Private Science Research Institute

(Beijing) — A group of top Chinese academics have launched the country’s first-ever private science research institute, at a time when government-funded research outfits have been rattled by charges of corruption.

The Westlake Institute for Advanced Study, launched on Saturday in the eastern city of Hangzhou, “is the first privately run institution dedicating to researching and teaching multiple scientific disciplines, including life sciences,” said Shi Yigong, a Tsinghua University vice president and institute co-founder who is heading it.

Shi, 49, is a Princeton University-trained molecular biologist who rejected a prestigious $10 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland to return to China in 2008.

Rao Yi, a neurobiologist and a former dean of Peking University's School of Life Sciences, is another co-founder of the institute. Rao, 54, is a leading voice advocating for cutting red tape in government agencies linked to managing scientific research and promoting integrity in China’s research community.

Shi and his co-founders were each given a one-time 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) grant by the Zhejiang provincial government to establish the institute.

But the research outfit will rely on private donors for most of its funding, said Shi. Among its high-profile backers are China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, who runs the property and entertainment conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group; and Pony Ma, founder of internet giant Tencent Inc. Management of the institute declined to answer Caixin’s inquiries about how much private funding has been raised so far.

Shi said he hopes the institution will one day rival U.S. schools such as the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University. The new institution will be developed into a full-fledged research university with 130 independent labs, Shi said.

The initiative has also been backed by the central government. China’s ruling Communist Party pledged to allocate 2.5 percent of GDP for research and development by 2020 as it aims to foster innovation to rev up growth in China’s slowing economy.

But in recent years, government-funded teaching and research institutions have been rattled by cases of corruption and irregularities when allocating funds. They are also slowed down by red tape.

The government-run National Natural Sciences Foundation said on Monday that it had “unknowingly” funded 28 of the 117 academic papers by Chinese scholars, which were retracted after being published on international journals after plagiarism charges surfaced last year.

On the contrary, private teaching and research institutions were able enforce higher academic standards because they had a higher degree of flexibility, according to Shi. Many of the world’s top universities with strengths in R&D, including Harvard and Yale universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are privately owned, he said.

The new institute plans to recruit about 200 professors from around the globe and nearly 2,000 researchers. But management did not disclose how many academics they have signed up during two rounds of global head-hunting over the past six months.

Contact reporter Li Rongde (rongdeli@caixin.com)

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