Here's a provocative post over at Chemjobber's blog, taking off from a letter to C&E News. James Collmann (emeritus at Stanford) wrote in about a recent article on Chinese scientists returning to that country to take academic positions. He mentions, as a "widely known but seldom discussed" problem, that large research grants in China require an illegal kickback, in cash, to someone at the granting agency.
Having never applied for a grant in China, I have no testimony to offer here. Some readers may, though, be able to shed some light on this from their own experiences. I will say, however, that I do not find this unbelievable at all.
And for anyone who wants to pop up in the comments section and accuse me of blind anti-Chinese bias, the reason I find this plausible is because of the way politics worked back where I grew up in Arkansas. We had a number of officials in my part of the state whose career trajectories ended up with an encounter with federal prosecutors because of this same attitude. No substantial sum of money could change hands, these folks seemed to think, without some of it sticking to theirs along the way. Road and construction projects were particularly favored for this kind of thing, but it certainly didn't, and doesn't, stop there.
And lest someone pop up in the comments to accuse me of blind anti-Arkansas bias (which hasn't happened yet, although you never know), I adduce a long list of politicians and officials from other US states, with ex-governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois coming to mind immediately. But one could just as easily reel off names from Rhode Island, Louisiana, Connecticut, Ohio, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts and many another state beside. The only differences between them, and between them and China (or between China and dozens and dozens of other countries) is how common this behavior might be, on what scale it is practiced, and how likely it is to be uncovered or punished. Differences in degree, in other words, not in kind.
And Chemjobber's commenters waste no time in mentioning the "overhead" system built into academic grants in the US. Universities have a standard rake that they take off the top of every grant that comes in, as most of you will know. Lest you think that it's the smaller and hungrier schools that do this the most, the overhead percentage is famously highest at some of the most prestigious places. This goes for administration (a roomy category), paying the salaries of faculty who have tenure but bring in no grants themselves, paying that salaries of entire departments who bring in precious little grant money themselves (because there's precious little to be given in their subjects), and so on. Not all of these are illegitimate uses, by any means, but I think a lot of people outside of academia might still be struck by how much money changes hands, and by what percentage of each hundred thousand that Professor X pulls in for research actually ends up going to Professor X's research. In their defense, though, I will say that these overhead arrangements in the US are made explicit, although they're not exactly advertised, and are used by the universities themselves, rather than quietly lining the pockets of someone at a granting agency.
At any rate, if anyone knows more about these accusations concerning China, please let us know in the comments. And if anyone finds them unbelievable prima facie, let us know about that, too. That would be nearly as interesting.
Update: it's been pointed out to me that there are very specific regulations in the US about using overhead funds for salaries (and many other restrictions, besides). I take the point; I've never had to wade through that paperwork. But I wonder - if this money is going into some other (approved) pile at the University, does that not somehow, some way, follow on through the various budgetary piles to free up money for those other uses?