The Chinese government is developing procedures to increase the transparency of the way that it spends its growing research budget.
The move follows recent complaints about alleged bias and inefficiency in procedures that are currently used (see How China can boost its scientific impact; Why China needs a National Institutes of Health; Biologists urge reform of life science funding in China).
Under guidelines issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), the government will store information about all those involved in the receipt of state funding for research, including not only the researchers and their supervisors, but also the peer reviewers whose opinions were consulted during the allocation of research grants.
The information, which will be held on a national database that is publicly accessible, will include records of all the grants received by individual researchers, and how they have been spent.
As well as recording professional achievements, the database will also provide details of malpractice by researchers, such as established instances of plagiarism, the falsification of data, and attempts to publish the same research more than once.
According to Xu Guanhua, minister of science and technology, a national campaign to collect this information will begin shortly.
The government will use the information in the database when deciding on the allocation of research funds, and may involve the public in this process. Xu is keen that all national research and development projects should eventually operate under the system.
Xu says that those who violate the regulations may have their status as peer reviewers revoked, or be barred from applying for government research funding. For serious breaches of the regulations, scientists will face fines and court appearances.
Wu Zhongze, a vice-ministerial official within MOST who is responsible for the behaviour of scientists, says that unethical practices are widespread in China. Applicants for research grants have, for instance, forged academic documents, falsified data, and exaggerated the potential for financial returns from proposed research, he says.
Corruption is also a problem, according to Wu, who says that some peer reviewers have been found to have made favourable assessments of weak funding proposals in return for illegal payments from applicants.
"The violations have not only seriously damaged the management of Chinese science, but also distracted scientists from their research, and forced them to put more emphasis on searching for funds," says Wu. "Our efforts aim to create a credit system and bring research and development activities back onto healthy track."
Some scientists, however, say that the activities of government officials should also be monitored, claiming that officials responsible for administrative or budgetary affairs sometimes interfere directly with research projects.
In addition, argue the critics, much evaluation of research programmes is carried out by government officials, rather than professional scientists. As a result, they say, critical funding decisions are too often made by bureaucrats rather than qualified experts.