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  • From professor to mayor: science for China's poor


Jia Hepeng reports on a Chinese scheme that has sent 2,000 scientists to spend two-year terms in regional governments so they can apply their knowledge to alleviating poverty there.

Chinese scientist Li Jun used to spend his days doing research at the Qingdao Institute of Oceanology. Then one day in late 2002 the Chinese Academy of Sciences nominated him to spend two years as vice-mayor of Putian City, more than 500 miles away.

This might sound strange but Li is just one of 2,000 Chinese scientists who have taken part in a scheme aimed at sharing scientific knowledge with China's rural communities.

"They have become bridges between research institutes and local governments, and their work helps millions of people shake off poverty," says Bai Chunli, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

While some of the scientists have resented their postings, or been unsuccessful, many have had such a positive experience that they have extended their stay by one or more terms.

Indeed, soon after being appointed, Li realised his scientific background could be invaluable in Putian, and he is still there now, in his second term in office.

When Li arrived, Putian's coastline was heavily polluted by effluent from the city's many fish and shrimp farms. Aquaculture was so widespread that there was a surplus of cheap farmed seafood — great news for consumers, but terrible for the fish farmers, who remained poor.

"Then I thought of Eucheuma," says Li. "A tropical seaweed I first studied in Hainan Province nearly 20 years ago."

Eucheuma grows fast and as it does, absorbs and detoxifies pollutants. It can be used to make glue and is also safe to eat, he adds.

Wondering if the seaweed could help clean up the coastal waters, Li did not at first realise he might also be able to help the local farmers. His first problem was getting the tropical Eucheuma to grow in the cooler waters off Putian.

With help from CAS scientists, Li found another variety that can grow in cooler environments.

In 2003, after repeated trials, a small number of local seafood farmers decided to grow the algae in coastal enclosures. This variety grows more slowly than those in tropical seas. When processed, however, it produces more glue, meaning bigger profits for the farmers who grow it.

But just how much bigger surprised them. The news spread to spark an 'Eucheuma-rush'. Now, 500 farmers each earn about 50,000 yuan (US$6,211) from the algae plantations — about six times what they earned before.

Farmers harvesting the seaweed

Potatoes for the poor

Another scientist who has extended his stay away from his institute is Zeng Fuping, an agricultural ecologist. In 1994, Zeng left the Changsha-based Institute of Subtropical Agriculture to work in Huanjiang County in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Since then he has been asked to return as an expert to help fight poverty, and has served four two-year terms of office in local government.

In 1998 he was elected deputy-governor of Huanjiang County, in charge of allocating land to 60,000 immigrants who had arrived from the infertile mountainous region nearby, and helping the settlers adapt to their new surroundings.

Zeng proposed planting fruit trees, because these require less land than crops, and help to stabilise thin soils.

Such trees take three years to bear fruit, however. So working with a team from his institute, Zeng started by teaching the immigrants how to plant potatoes — a challenge given that the farmers had never seen potatoes before.

"At first, many would not dare eat them," says Zeng. So he learnt different ways of cooking potatoes, then went from village to village inviting people to try the various dishes.

While Zeng became a good potato cook, the farmers were able to survive their first few years in the Huanjiang uplands.

Now the orchards are bearing fruit and have increased farmers' average annual income from 300 yuan in 1994 (US$37) to US$200 today.

Using his position as both scientist and deputy governor, Zeng was also able to set up a field trial station in Huanjiang's infertile mountain region, where the settlers had come from, and where many of their former neighbours remained.

The station's research into the region's ecology and agriculture won a national award in 2004 that brought three million yuan (US$363,000) in research funding to the region.

But most importantly, adds Zeng, the research helps improve local farmers' productivity.

Zeng's team improved agriculture in a region with
infertile soils

Scientist dissident

While Li and Zeng used their research expertise to improve local revenues, Zhang Wenhua says his major contribution was to help correct government policies.

Zhang used to work at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, but has worked as the vice-governor of Jinchengjiang District of Hechi City, Guangxi since 1997.

One example of his influence is indicative. In 2002, the district government offered farmers free seeds and subsidised fertiliser to encourage them to grow Chinese goldthread (Coptis chinensis) — a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat swelling.

At that time, the market price of the plant was very high and it seemed that farmers would be able to earn ten times more growing it instead of grains.

But Zhang knew that the local climate meant the plant would be susceptible to fungal disease. Being only a 'guest' vice-governor, however, he felt he could not challenge the idea openly.

Instead he wrote a report to the city's municipal government, suggesting that they run a smaller trial first. They listened and ran a test on an area of 2.5 hectares instead, about the area of 20 Olympic swimming pools instead of the 266 planned.

As Zhang predicted, the fungus devastated the crops in the trial plots and the district government dropped the planned project.

In the past five years, Zhang has advised on plans to grow sugar cane and pine forests, and has set up large-scale cattle feeding programmes. Zhang accepts that, as a scientist, he does not know everything, but says his rational mind can let him see when 'get-rich-quick' schemes are flawed.

Institutional roots

Not every scientist is happy with their rural posting however. The scheme became voluntary in 2005 but for the previous 20 years, each of CAS's 130 institutes and research centres had a quota of up to three scientists to send to either local governments or state–owned companies for two to three years.

Li Hefeng, deputy director of CAS's Personnel Office accepts that the scheme was only possible because of China's 'top-down' administration, but says it has been worthwhile, allowing science to be applied to local problems.

"Of course we avoid interrupting important research," he says. "We do not recommend leading scientists in key areas".

Most scientists were selected on the relevance of their research, as well as their willingness to participate. But others were chosen because they had become redundant in their positions. Some, resenting being sent, failed to fulfil their potential.

Li admits that not every scientist has done well during their term as vice-mayor or vice-governor, especially in the very poor western provinces, where the local resources cannot support research and innovation.

Ren Yutao, deputy director of the Organizational Department of Tai'an City, Shandong Province, adds that the scheme's success depends on local governments creating good working conditions for the scientists, and encouraging their work.

Another problem facing the scientists is that it can be hard to return to their original institutes and continue their research, as their former positions have been filled, says Zhang Keren.

Zhang, formerly of the Hefei-based University of Science and Technology of China, was selected as vice-mayor of Xuancheng City of Anhui in 2003. He suggests that the original institutes should give their returning scientists a stable transition period and financial support to resume their studies.

In response to calls from scientists, CAS no longer requires its institutes to supply a quota of scientists each year, despite growing demands for help from local governments. In the meantime, it has asked its institutes to provide financial assistance for scientists on secondment, so they can continue their research.

Lui Hongjun, senior editor of the newspaper Science Times, points out that the scheme uses scientists who can do research and have "practical experience and wide academic links that are valuable for local governments".

Li Jun who introduced lucrative seaweed farming to the famers of Putian, is just one example: "They now call me Mayor Eucheuma," he says proudly.

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