• 'Don't ignore grassroots scientists', China urged

    Jia Hepeng


[BEIJING] Senior Chinese scientists, engineers and policy researchers have written to a newspaper to urge their government and scientific community to acknowledge the importance of 'grassroots scientists' to national development.

Song Zhenghai, a policy researcher at the Institute of Natural Science History and lead author of the letter, describes grassroots scientists as those who have had no scientific training, who are not formally attached to any science agency, or who are not employed as researchers.

An example is Wang Heng, of Shanxi Province, who invented a series of technologies to prevent underground water leakage. He holds 57 patents and was awarded a national prize for technological invention this year.

Opportunities for China's grassroots scientists to publish their work are rare. Having spent the past 20 years helping such scientists to do just this, Song is concerned that the current way science is funded and evaluated in China excludes their contributions.

"An editor of a famous [Chinese] academic journal used to describe the contributions of grassroots scientists by saying: 'I received bags of rubbish from these unprofessional writers'," says Song.

Grassroots scientists are more in tune than professional researchers with the needs of the average Chinese so their work could help China to develop sustainably, says the letter that Song and 19 colleagues published on 16 May in the Scientific and Technological Daily newspaper.

Song says grassroots scientists should be able to compete with professional researchers for funding. Currently, most Chinese funding agencies require researchers to belong to a formally recognised institute or company.

"These institutes seldom agree to formally assess the scientific results of the grassroots scientists, let alone fund them," said Song in an interview with SciDev.Net.

A fair science evaluation system should be created for grassroots scientists, and formal academic societies should be more inclusive towards such scientists, says the letter. It adds that funding agencies should consider whether their work could help solve scientific and practical problems, not whether an applicant is affiliated to an institution.

"Although the grassroots scientists might not have been trained academically, their knowledge and thinking can lead them to make truly original science innovations," said Wang Shouchun, a scientist at the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, and one of the letter's authors.