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[BEIJING] A senior Chinese researcher has complained that the country's largest science foundation is not protecting the anonymity of those who review its funding applications.

As a result, Zhou Zhenhe has said that he will not assess funding applications for the National Natural Science Foundation of China again.

Zhou says that "former students, colleagues and teachers" of his, whose funding proposal he had evaluated, had found out that he had rejected it.

"If the name of an evaluator can be easily released, how can we ensure the fairness of scientific evaluation?" said Zhou, a geography professor at Shanghai-based Fudan University, in a statement published on 9 October in Beijing News.

The National Natural Science Foundation of China's constitution states that reviewers of funding applications should remain anonymous.

"How could my name be released?" asks Zhou. The online evaluation procedure, he points out, needs two passwords.

When he discussed this with colleagues, says Zhou, they mocked him and said that "a computer is dead but its operators are alive" and could release the information.

Zhou feels the case casts him in a bad light. "People will say I am cruel for vetoing funding for my friends," he says.

An official at the foundation's disciplinary department told SciDev.Net it had not received a formal complaint from Zhou, adding that funding applicants might be able to identify evaluators from the way their assessments are written.

"After all, the academic circle for certain disciplines is not very big," he said.

Fang Zhouzi, an independent commentator who has been fighting to improve China's academic ethics, agrees that applicants might identify evaluators from their particular tone.

"More complicated procedures, such as using standard expressions in the evaluations, should be promoted to ensure anonymity as much as possible," says Fang who edits the website, which exposes scientific misconduct.

Last year, the National Natural Science Foundation of China spent three billion yuan (US$370 million) funding 50,000 research projects.