“Science & Civilization” Series Lectures: Discussion on the Chinese Academician System and Related Issues

Figure 1 (Professor Wang Yangzong, School of Humanities, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences)

On the evening of November 25, 2019, the third lecture of the "Science and Civilization" series of academic lectures was held in the B101 lecture hall of Peking University Second Gymnasium. Professor Wang Yangzong from the School of Humanities, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, published a wonderful report entitled "Discussion on the Chinese Academician System and Related Issues". The lecture was presided over by Professor Zhang Li, deputy director of the department of science, technology and medical history of Peking University.

Figure 2 (Professor Zhang Li was presiding.)

According to professor Zhang Li, the series of Science and Civilization Academic Lectures were jointly sponsored by the Department of History of Science, Technology and Medicine and the Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences of the Peking University, aiming to build a platform for an in-depth discussion of scientific civilization. In the first lecture, Academician Han Qide, director and originator of the Department of History of Science, raised 12 questions about science and civilization. In second lecture, Professor Wu Guosheng from Tsinghua University discussed the relationship between scientific spirit and ancient Greek civilization. In the third lecture, Professor Wang Yangzong from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences who has long been devoted to the research of the history of modern science in China, especially the academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences would share the process of the genesis and development, as well as the related history and current status of the academician system in China derived from the Western academic system.

Professor Wang Yangzong started from the origin of his research on the academician system. In 2005, he published a research article on the establishment of the Chinese academician system. Since then, he has been commissioned to preside over the research and compilation of the history of the Chinese Academy of Sciences for ten years. During this period, his research content was extensive and was in connection with many issues. In this lecture, Professor Wang would first review the establishment of the Chinese academician system, and then briefly discuss some of related problems.

The development of the academician system in China and the modern science in China started almost simultaneously. In 1927, when the preparations for the Chinese Academy of Sciences (the "Central Research Institute" at that time) began, the problem about academician was raised. However, most of the committee members who prepared the Central Research Institute did not become important scientists, so the academician system was not developed when the Central Research Institute was newly founded. In 1935, the Central Research Institute established a system of evaluation councils, which became the first academic qualification evaluation institution in modern China, and implemented the function of "guide, contact, and encourage academic research". The first session of the evaluation council was composed of 41 members totally including 30 elected senators and 11 ex officio members. In March 1947, the Central Research Institute revised the organic law and the evaluation council regulations to select academicians with outstanding achievements from the national academic community. In 1948, the first batch of 80 academicians was elected, in which academicians from the field of humanities and social sciences were included. Since then, the organizational structure of the Central Research Institute has been improved. The members of the evaluation council were elected by all academicians of the institute. The council elected three presidential candidates, and one of them was elected as presidential by the leadership of executivement. This was the academician system tried out in China before 1949.

Figure 3 group photo of the Academician Conference in 1948

From academician to academic department member

After the founding of New China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences was established under the influence of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. However, it was not duplication, but a transitional system was taken. The subjects were divided into four departments, which were the Department of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, the Department of Biogeography, the Department of Technology and the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences. The academicians also became "academic department member". Later, the Department of Chemistry was singled out, leaving the Department of Mathematics and Science; the Department of Biogeography was separated into two separate departments in 1957; the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences went out independently from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and was officially renamed as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1977.

After the establishment of the four academic departments, at the end of May 1955, the first batch of 233 academic department members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences was formally approved by the State Council. Among them, 61 were in the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences, and the remaining 172 were in three other departments. These 172 academic department members were renamed academicians in 1994, and they were the first academicians in the new China.

The nature and functions of the academic department members

On June 1, 1955, the founding meeting of the academic department was held. At the meeting, the questions concerning "what kind of title is the ‘academic department member’, what is its nature and what kind of authority does it have?" lead to a heated debate. Participants failed to reach a definite consensus on important issues like the responsibilities of the academic department, the members and standing members of the department, and how did the department and the department members work. The debate was not only due to the inherent conflict between the government leaders and experts and scholars in the system of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but also because when the academic department was set up, the Chinese Academy of Sciences proposed that the academician system would be established within a few years, which made them face the problem of how to transform academic department member to the academician and made it difficult to determine the nature of the academic department members.

What functions did the academic department have? From the level of the Academy of Sciences, the academic department could be simply regarded as the organization of academic committees at the level of the academy; from the national level, the academic department should participate in and even organize and lead major national scientific plans; the academic department was also responsible for some evaluations and selections, such as the scientific award of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1956 (ie the first National Natural Science Foundation of China), and the evaluation and selection of senior titles above the associate research fellows of the institutes of Chinese Academy of Sciences before the cultural revolution.

Figure 4 June 1, 1955 Founding Conference of the academic department

The new system of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

During the cultural revolution, the department of Chinese Academy of Sciences was revoked. After the cultural revolution, all kinds of work set the stage for chaos, emancipated the mind, and gradually move on the right track. In early August 1977, Comrade Deng Xiaoping held a symposium on science and education, at which the college entrance examination was resumed from that year. In 1978, some academic department members came to Beijing to participate in the National Science Conference. In January 1979, the academic department resumed its establishment. Due to the stagnation of work during the cultural revolution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences decided to conduct an additional election of the academic department member. From March 28 to April 2, 1980, the Chinese Academy of Sciences held a meeting of the academic department member in Beijing, which discussed the nature and tasks, the provisional briefs, and the setting of the department, the expanding number of additional department members, and the problem about the establishment the academician system. On May 31, in the "Inquiry Report on Several Issues about the academic department" which the Chinese Academy of Sciences submitted to the State Council proposed that the academic department was the leading academic institution of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; the academic department member was a job title that could be re-elected every four years and people who had re-election can be re-appointed, and this title was different from the highest academic honor of the country for life as academician. So far, the leadership system that the scientists administrated the academy has been established, and the academic department has been identified as the core of the leadership system of the whole academy. This was a major progress in the leadership system of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Simultaneously, after the cooptation of members, the number of department member increased to 400.

Figure 5 the group photo of department members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and major leaders at the National Science Conference in 1978

Proposal of academician system and the transition to academician system

The academician system was promoted by Hu Qiaomu and Fang Yi at the same time as the election of academic committee members in 1980. In July 1980, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences submitted to the State CouncilRequest for Instructions on the Establishment of Academician SystemandRegulations on the Academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Draft). The “Regulations” stipulates that the academician is the highest academic honorary title in China, and it is a lifetime professional title. The “Request for Instructions” clearly states that the first batch of academicians should be 200 (including academicians in social sciences). The “Request for Instructions” and the “Regulations” of the Chinese Academy of Sciences were approved in principle at the executive meeting of the State Council on October 21. However, the establishment of the academician system soon encountered difficulties: how to deal with the relationship between academicians and academic committee members.

In 1983, both the Working Group of the Central and State Institution Reform and the Science and Technology Leading Group Office of the State Council sent investigation teams to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Both reports raised reform proposals on the basic tasks, guidelines and leadership system of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and proposed to adjust the authority of the academic committee meeting and the academic division. In November 1983, the investigation team of the State Council ’s Science and Technology Leadership Group and the Party Group of the Chinese Academy of Sciences submitted a report to the Central Secretariat for the convening of the fifth academic committee meeting. The meeting proposed to change the nature and function of the academic committee meeting, and was soon approved. The fifth academic committee meeting was held in Beijing in January 1984, and the Central Committee announced that the members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are the highest honors in science and technology in China. From then on, “academic committee member” has changed from a title of work to the academic honor.

Regarding the relationship between academic committee members and academicians, the presidium of the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggested that all members be converted to academicians, and that “the total number of academicians should not be fixed”. However, Hu Qiaomu, member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, who strongly promoted the establishment of the academician system, clearly expressed his opposition. He believed that, among the current academic committee members, many did not reach high levels of academic achievements, and a few were administrative staff, so it was inadvisable to convert all academic committee members into academicians. The Chinese Academy of Sciences also expressed different views on the methods proposed by Hu Qiaomu to improve academic standards, control the scale of academicians and establish the academician system. Since then, the establishment of the academician system reached a deadlock, and the additional election of the academic committee members was stopped.

Hu Qiaomu died in 1992. On January 14, 1994, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued a notice to all academic committee members: The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council have decided to rename the members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences as academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The academician system was established.

In the past 20 years, the Chinese academician system has been constantly reformed, developed and improved, including establishing foreign academicians and senior academician system, raising the election criteria, reforming the nomination channels, setting the final election mechanism and the “discouraging” mechanism, resolving retirement issues, and promoting the election of younger academicians.

Problems in the academician system

After reviewing the long process of establishing the Chinese academician system, Professor Wang also reflected on the existing problems in the academician system.

The scale and academic standards of academicians. The number of the academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering is too large, thus bringing down the academic standards and causing the lack of academic authority of Chinese academicians, which is an important source of the existing problems in the academician system. Dating back to the historical reason, it is because no in-depth consideration was made of relevant system issues, and no necessary measures were taken to improve the admission criteria for academicians, when transforming the functions of the academic committee, and connecting the two titles of different natures, namely “Member of the Academic Committee” and “Academician”.

The honorary nature of academicians. At the national and social levels, the academicians of the two academies are the symbols of the most eminent scientists in China. Therefore, once the academicians are elected, they may be endowed with various powers and obligations, resulting in the problem that almost all resources are tilted toward those with titles such as academicians.

The implicit power of academicians. Academicians are often invited to participate and even preside over the following work, including the allocation of scientific and technological funds, the establishment of major projects, the appraisal of scientific and technological achievements, the formulation and evaluation of scientific and technological awards, the promotion of titles and positions, and scientific and technological plans, as well as the evaluation of disciplines and institutions, which is the source of academicians’ implicit power. The power of science and education has a tendency to concentrate in academicians, but this is a kind of implicit power, lacking effective regulations.

The “relations” in the academician election. The academic committee and the academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are the highest-level expert system in China’s science and technology community. For a long time, at the national and social levels, academicians are the symbols of the most eminent scientists in China, and once elected, they may be endowed with various powers and obligation. Therefore, in the election of academicians, there exist personnel activities, which are clearly shown in the files and notes of some academicians.

The internationalization of academicians. In recent years, among the newly elected academicians of the two academies, the proportion of foreign academicians has increased significantly, but the number of academicians is still smaller compared to the domestic academicians. Professor Wang pointed out that, when reforming the academician system, we must try to attract outstanding Chinese scientific and technological talents in abroad, so that they can become an important part of the academicians of the two academies, and even make them the leaders and backbone of the Chinese science and technology community. Internationalization of academicians is an important issue faced by the academician system.

Professor Wang Yangzong shared some of his thoughts after reviewing the history of the academician system. There have been some problems with the academician system since its establishment, and it has been reformed many times since then, but there are only few scientists who are influential internationally. The lessons learned from the history should be carefully summarized and introspected by the science history community and academic community. In addition, to rebuild the society’s trust in academicians, we must accelerate the reform and construction of the scientific and technological system, and establish an operational monitoring mechanism in academia to transform the implicit power into explicit power. As a representative of China’s eminent scientists, academicians should have a broader mind to promote these reforms, and this is also an unavoidable problem on the road to becoming a powerful country in science and technology in the 21st century.

Professor Zhang Li spoke highly of Professor Wang Yangzong’s review of the history of the academician system. To analyze the origin of the Chinese academician system, Professor Wang has been referring to the systems of Europe as well as other countries and regions, so that we can locate the origin of the problems of our academician system and the direction of future academician system reform more accurately.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Wang discussed with the audience the legal sources of the academician system, the differences between academic committee members and academicians in terms of different aspects, and the boundaries of academician system research. The lecture was ended in a heated discussion.

Lecture SeriesScience & Civilization
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