Monday, February 4, 2008

Fang Zhouzi's Interview with Denmark Newspaper

Fang Zhouzi had an interview with the Denmark newspaper Weekendavisen on the subject of his fraud-busting efforts. Both the English and Chinese versions are disclosed at New Thread. Here is the English version:

1) What would you consider the most important case of scientific fraud that you have helped unveil? Why was it important?

Since 2000 we have exposed about 700 cases of scientific fraud, and it will be difficult to single out the most important one. "Nucleic acid nutrition" scheme is probably the one. It was the first case that brought wide media coverage (both domestically and internationally. The prestigious Science magazine ran a special report about it). It involved more than a dozen of Chinese biochemists, who held "conference" and "hearing" to defend the scheme. After 6 years, the battle hasn't finished. Zhen-Ao Company is still advertising its "nucleic acid nutrition" products on CCTV.

2) Is scientific fraud a larger problem in China than elsewhere? Why? Is the situation improving? If so, why? If not, why not?

The problem of scientific fraud in contemporary China is so widely spread that it's a unique phenomenon, which I prefer to call it "academic corruption". It's larger than elsewhere or any other periods of China. It's the result of interactions between totalitarianism (the lack of freedoms of speech, press and academic research), extreme capitalism (try to commercialize everything, including science and education) and traditional culture (the lack of scientific spirit, the culture of saving-face, etc). The situation is somehow improving. There is awareness that this is a serious problem. Compared to 6 years ago, Chinese media are more willing to report the misconduct cases, appeal for a reform and criticize government, and have more freedom, although still very limited, to do so. And Chinese government at least admits this is a serious problems and has issued several regulations (but we are still waiting to see it take real action).

3) What are the potential consequences for China, its people and its economy, of pseudo-science being taken at face value? Are there examples of people who have lost their lives because of bad science?

It has wasted a lot of public funds. For instance, about 10 years ago, a "turning water into oil" scheme gained supports from many government officials and received several hundreds of millions of RMB funding. Recently, it's reported that a "perpetual motion machine", which we first exposed, is supported by local government to apply for 30 millions of RMB funding. When the pseudo-science is commercialized, it's a waste of consumers' money, and can also damage consumers' health if it's sold as drug or dietary supplement.

4) How do you get information about suspected cases of scientific fraud? How do you check if the allegations are correct?

The information usually is sent by email from our readers. 1) I usually don't accept anonymous submissions. The authors should let me know his or her real name and identity, although I won't leak it without his or her permission. 2) The allegation must sound reasonable, and has supporting evidence. I usually do some investigations before publishing the allegations. Most of allegations are about plagiarism and faked resume, which are easily investigated by online search. Sometimes I asked experts' opinions before publishing allegations. 3) I always welcome and publish the rebuttals from the accused and his or her supporters. If an allegation turns out to be unfounded, I will promptly clarify and apologize for it. This has happened several times. So far there is no evidence that the reputation of an innocent person has been damaged by us.

5) What is the general attitude towards your activities in the scientific community? Do Chinese scientists welcome your activities? What has, overall, been the biggest obstacle you have encountered?

I think the scientific community has a mixed feeling regarding my activities. I believe many Chinese scientists would like to live in a better and cleaner academic environment, but the fraud is so widely spread among Chinese academics that most of them have been used to it and many of them don't have clean hands. They usually welcome my activities until their own interests are in danger. Although we have exposed about 700 cases, only a small portion (about 2%) has been dealt with by authorities. Some graduate students later took the responsibility and were expelled. But the professors were rarely punished. The authorities just simply ignore our accusations or even try to cover it up. I think this is the biggest obstacle.

6) Previously, you wrote about a Beijing laboratory called the Huada Gene Research Center. According to reports, the laborary adopted a "nationalistic" approach to gene research, warning against sharing China's DNA with the outside world. Is this a view held by many in the Chinese scientific community? Why? What are the consequences of this?

Yes, I think this has something to do with nationalism, which is also very popular in the Chinese scientific community. Many frauds are committed under the veil of patriotism. China doesn't have enough resource to study her gene diversity and it's essential to have international collaborations. Nationalism can become a big obstacle of scientific development. (Small isolated populations are good targets of genetic research, and the study should be done as soon as possible because this kind of populations is disappearing)

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