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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 20, 2011

Honest Research in China

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Posted by Derek

Continuing a sort of informal series here on China's research environment, a reader sent along this editorial from China Daily. That, of course, is an organ of the Chinese government, and its title is a rather pointed one: "Honest Research Needed":

An investigation by the Chinese Association of Scientists has revealed that only about 40 percent of the funds allocated for scientific research is used on the projects they are meant for. The rest is usually spent on things that have nothing to do with research. . .Besides, the degree of earnestness most scientists show in their research projects nowadays is questionable. Engaging in scientific research projects funded by the State has turned out to be an opportunity for some scientists to make money. There are examples of some scientists getting research funds because of their connections with officials rather than their innovation capacity.

This would seem to be part of a broader anticorruption movement on the part of the government, which (from all reports) is finding plenty of material to work with. But I still have to wonder how effective that's going to be. As long as it's the state that is the main source of funding, the source of all permissions, and the final judge on what's worthwhile, then corruption has both a strong incentive to exist and a clear leverage point from which to work.

If you subsidize something, you're going to get it. It may be that the Chinese government has subsidized, in too many cases, something that was billed as "research", without realizing that it was going to have those quotation marks around it.

Comments (25) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side


1. anonymous on September 20, 2011 12:55 PM writes...

I don't see how US or any other country is different in this regard.

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2. Derek Lowe on September 20, 2011 1:23 PM writes...

True, corruption is a problem everywhere. But I think that China's situation exacerbates it. In the US, you can get funding from the government for your neat research idea, if you're in academia. (And there are several granting agencies that might be worthwhile, depending on your field). Or you can try to persuade a foundation or a patient advocacy group. Or you can start a company, if it's the sort of thing that might make one fly, and bring in investors. None of these are easy, and none of them are sure things, but they're at least possibilities.

But China's research establishment seems more monolithic. From what I hear, you have to know the right people, and you have to be friends with them. It's not like that doesn't help, here, but it's not the single biggest criterion.

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3. Luigi on September 20, 2011 1:24 PM writes...

Derek - Are you sure this wasn't from a WSJ article on the NIH?

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4. Luigi on September 20, 2011 1:26 PM writes...

Derek - Are you sure this wasn't from a WSJ article on the NIH?

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5. PharmaHeretic on September 20, 2011 1:44 PM writes...

Dystopic Thought- Hopefully western scientists in their free societies can one day aspire to be as honest as the Chinese.

If you think that research in western countries, especially of the biomedical type, has anything more than a sliver of honesty- you are either delusional or willfully blind. Between the ponzi scheme that is academia, Ppotemkin villages of research institutes and most of the bullshit that passes for research and progress in the private sector.. things are pretty dim in the west.

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6. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on September 20, 2011 3:56 PM writes...

Derek @2, Doesn't seem to be a whole lot different than the Solyndra bankruptcy currently in the news. As long as it is green-related and you have WH connections, doesn't matter if it will make money, they'll pay you a handsome sum to fail. Substitute green for research and it seems to be the same corrupt system.

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7. Anonymous on September 20, 2011 4:45 PM writes...

@ Wile #6: You are spot on, but I think what Derek maybe pointing out is the scale at which these events occur in the US vs. China. Do you think the US will ever implement the death penalty for corruption? I doubt it! Perhaps if the corruption gets out of hand or the US starts manufacturing tainted products and sending them overseas/abroad. Who knows! The bottom line: honesty is the best policy...

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8. Hap on September 20, 2011 5:12 PM writes...

See World Audit's numbers on corruption. According to those, the US is 17th, and China is 61st. Seems like a significant difference to me (though in real terms, you need to know the differences in corrupt events between the two rankings and whether it's significant - I'm still guessing "yes".)

China's top people can complain about corruption and people getting wealthy from their grants, but unless they behave, the only lessons that will actually be learned are 1) Have powerful friends and 2) Don't get caught.

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9. CMCguy on September 20, 2011 5:27 PM writes...

I am not sure I would equate the NIH with outright entrenched corruption that China appears to have however do view them as often inhibitory because of bureaucratic processes and good-old-boy networkism that is risk averse and funnels to Big Names.

Of course the Congressional Pork Barrel funding for special research projects in home districts might be a closer system analogy even though is viewed as acceptable political rewards practice.

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10. Anonymous on September 20, 2011 6:06 PM writes...

@ HAP #8

I guess it depends where you get your info from!!!!

I question your data...they have Canada way up there... I'm not so sure about that one eh??

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11. leftscienceawhileago on September 20, 2011 7:11 PM writes...

I'm going to echo some of the statements about how aptly some of Derek's statements describe the US situation.

Just take a plain and honest look at how a lot of the the big names get funded and what they are funded for. How many of these names have actually played a significant role in bringing a drug to market? How many grant dollars have they received on the premise that their research "may one day lead to new drugs"?

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12. Anonymous on September 20, 2011 7:32 PM writes...

Overhead that goes directly to the universities can amount to 60%, or more. 40% of the grant may go to fund the research, so maybe its not so different. Just different people in the chain making money. If the scientists in China are using the money to fund research, even if its not what the State allocated for, then good for them. If they are pocketing it, then I don't see a lot of difference between them and the US university administrators and professors...

And I take issue with Derek's assertion that the largest criterion isn't knowing the right people, especially now. If you're not in the club, you're out in the cold. Clearly the funding processes need to be overhauled. Perhaps the Chinese will do it before the US.

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13. Fred on September 20, 2011 8:23 PM writes...

"I don't see how US or any other country is different in this regard. "

The pot's a lot smaller here.

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14. Chemjobber on September 20, 2011 8:24 PM writes...

Overhead that goes directly to the universities can amount to 60%, or more.

Which country is this true for: the US or China?

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15. Ryecatcher on September 20, 2011 9:12 PM writes...

as a Phd student in the one of the most famous research institutes in China, i`m sure the figure is not exaggerated.

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16. Student on September 21, 2011 12:36 AM writes...

@12 "Overhead that goes directly to the universities can amount to 60%..."
This is the case at my university (Tier 1 in the US) and I think it really needs to be addressed. We have secretaries and people in the shipping department making more than postdocs, heck our department administrator makes more than [associate] professors ($150k).
Yet my PI is still responsible for paying for everyone in the lab (including insurance) 60% of his salary and 100% of the research. And it is with this point that I argue against some of those thinking there are scientists just in it for the money...It is all of those surrounding the science that are making money (and in my opinion unethically). Administrators, supply companies, publishing companies, non profits (look at their financials and you'll see most of the money goes to overhead and "awareness," whatever that means), etc.

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17. AnonGradStudent on September 21, 2011 1:42 AM writes...


From what I have been told by professors, the figure is 50-60% at most universities in the US. No one really knows where that money goes. Considering the cost of the physical materials that go into research, it's odd that such a large chunk goes to "overhead".

Chinese science seems like where the U.S. is heading. With 50-60% going to questionable overhead at the universities and all those green energy busts, it seems like we are not to far from dishonest science funding ourselves. We just haven't hit the scale and the centralization of China.

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18. Innovorich on September 21, 2011 5:25 AM writes...

China does not want to have corruption, but the transition from the culture that they have, to the culture that they want cannot just happen over night.

The history of their culture revolves around this "gaunxi" of personal relationships. If they were to suddenly change it it would be quite damaging to their economy. People returning from education in the west, to China, are helping to change this culture already.

It's intersting that this article is published in China (since all media there is state licensed (albeit not as state controlled as we like to imagine her in the "free" west)) - particularly because it's so self-critical - particularly of the quality of science. One could argue that this is the beginnings of a subtle campaign to change this culture, and where better to start than with scientific funding.

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19. Innovorich on September 21, 2011 5:35 AM writes...

Just to add, and to #12's point - the difference in the US is that the situation is out of control. Nothing in China is out of control. But most control from China is subtle - like this article - it's a signal. When they really want to change something quickly - they will announce it in one of their 5 year plans - and then it will be changed. So yes - I expect China will fix this problem before the US does.

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20. You're Pfizered on September 21, 2011 8:15 AM writes...

When they really want to change something quickly - they will announce it in one of their 5 year plans - and then it will be changed. So yes - I expect China will fix this problem before the US does.

And their methods of dealing with it will be much more terminal than a slap on the wrist and a 5 year ban on federal funding. Just ask the head of their version of the FDA about it.

Oh, that's right, he'd dead.

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21. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on September 21, 2011 9:02 AM writes...

Having worked in an academic institution for nearly 5 years and seeing the type of work that gets funded by the "big names", the article Derek spoke of could, with a little tweaking, easily be referring to the current state of NIH funding. Money flows depending upon who you know, how cozy you are with the members of the study section reviewing your grant application, how kindly you reviewed their grants applications, etc. The corruption isn't "official" as that described for the Chinese system, but if you're not part of the "in-crowd"/"good-old-boy" network, the chances of your grant being funded are low. And yes, a lot of research gets funded that has close-to-zero chance of ever having a commercial impact or leading to any type of product concept. But unlike the Chinese situation, I've never seen anyone use research funds for anything other than research. In fact, it's the job of those highly-paid administrators that some of you bemoan to ensure the money is only used according to guidelines.

Regarding university overheads, they do range from 50-60% of direct costs. Overhead pays for the laboratory space, the services (utilities), administrative support (hate it if you like, but it is necessary), libraries, costs of maintaining animal facilities, etc. You guys all know laboratories are expensive operations to maintain.

And #17, it's simply not true that "no one knows where that money goes". Look at any major university's office for research webpage and you'll find a breakdown of where their indirect (overhead) dollars go.

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22. fmrpfedrone on September 21, 2011 12:51 PM writes...

From personal experience in looking at an antimalarial in china ( from the investment side w/biochem background ) - the research was funded by one of the wealthiest chinese in the country who in turn had ties at the govt level. the company itself was merely a subsidiary of a parent holdings company ( assortment of subsdiaries no others in science ) the AM was/is approved in china and was/is being used overseas ( introduced through govt contracts both publically and privately ) with multi-country approvals with NO clinical trial safety data - at any level. No follow up data - nada ( incredible as they used it within entire populations including children ). The attitude was - its not necessary and we, the westerners, were here to clean it up and fund all of those ' unecessary steps ' to produce a nice, shiny product for the who. the markets it has penetrated are flooded with counterfeits. sadly as i came to find out this is the rule not the exception. at this time it is purely an illusion to believe any of the chinese govt's claim to reform ( imo )

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23. Marsh on September 21, 2011 5:18 PM writes...

@2 Dl said"But China's research establishment seems more monolithic. From what I hear, you have to know the right people, and you have to be friends with them"

This is a precise description of academic chemistry in the United States today.

I think you're living in the past.

The USA, just after sputnik possessed a somewhat merit based system where small ideas could be funded and then breakout big. Working for or with the tenure committee on their favorite pet projects worked against you, as many faculty believed you were nothing more than an advanced grad student. Things have changed.

In today's academic hierarchy, you won't even get into the tenure track without promising the powers in your sponsoring University that you will kick back a portion of your grant money to the 'tenure committee.' This is essential because new ideas are not funded and you'll really be working for a 'well-funded' bloviating Prof with ties to an NIH grant committee. You'll then produce grants nearly identical to your sponsor (or grants written by your sponsor) that get both of you money.

Provided you do everything your sponsor demands he'll use his spike studded club to get the other faculty to fall into line and support your tenure.

Of course you won’t even get to start your supplication process unless you’re preferably from a wealthy family that has a few academics in it. It’s been proven faculty prefer to have their ass kissed by people from the same socioeconomic background.

This tends to select docile, somewhat flaky faculty who 'want to be liked by everyone'. The modern chem. Professor is akin to a house-pet.

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24. TMac on September 22, 2011 1:25 PM writes...

"As long as it's the state that is the main source of funding, the source of all permissions, and the final judge on what's worthwhile, then corruption has both a strong incentive to exist and a clear leverage point from which to work".

I guess that's why we are thankful to have a free market system which has nearly blown all the valves and laid a burden on society of such mind bending proportions. Thank god we don't have this type of systemic corruption caused by damn communist one stop shopping....

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25. Chantell Montuori on September 29, 2011 6:57 PM writes...

As I have recounted, this is a business enterprise tool. It’s not just a miracle machine. It could effortlessly develop into an additional expense should you not put the time and effort into finding out how to profit from it.

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