The nuclear option

Why 90 key scientists resigned abruptly from a state research institute


Hefei: Anhui’s new tech hub

For thousands of years scholars have enjoyed the highest social status in China. The Confucian value system afforded them great respect, asking that they eschew money-making and focus instead on their studies in the hope that their knowledge would contribute to the wellbeing of society at large.

That’s why it was a more dubious honour when Wu Yiling, founder of Yiling Pharmaceutical – a star performer in the A-share market because of a patented drug said to combat Covid-19 (see WiC493) – was dubbed by local media as the “richest academician” from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Wu’s success will have inspired other scientists in the State Council’s leading research institute to commercialise more of their R&D results more quickly. But the same trend has just laid waste to a key CAS research unit in Hefei, a growing hub for tech start-up and venture capital investment.

The Institute of Nuclear Safety Technology (INEST) almost imploded last month when 90 scientists and researchers resigned on the same day. The reasons for their sudden departure were not immediately clear. INEST told local newspapers that the exodus was part of “normal staff turnover” and that some of its employees had been “poached” by a private sector company. But the scale of the exodus hints at something out of ordinary.

About 200 people work at INEST and 80% of them have PhDs. The institute was set up in 2011 after a tsunami triggered a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant. Leading nuclear scientist Wu Yican was appointed to head the unit, with a key research focus on the development of “mini” nuclear reactors.

A report by the People’s Daily in 2016 claimed that CAS had achieved a “technological breakthrough” that could lead to the creation of nuclear power generators the size of cargo containers. Relying on a lead-based compound as coolant, these mini reactors could avoid nuclear disasters of Fukushima’s scale, the newspaper speculated (and possibly power China’s next generation of aircraft carriers, it has been claimed).

Wu is a demanding boss who insists on monthly reports of how many hours his staff have worked in overtime, Caijing magazine says. A keen volleyball fan, he also organises regular training where it is an unspoken rule that everyone needs to take part.

So the departing staff were fleeing a tyrannical boss? Possibly not, it seems, because Caijing says that the leaving group were poached by a private sector firm called Frontier Development of Science (FDS), which is closely linked to their former boss.

FDS specialises in the commercial application of nuclear technology. CBN, a newspaper, reports that both FDS and INEST have described Wu as their research director and both have embarked on similar research. It is not clear if CAS or INEST has a stake in FDS. But the media speculation is that a plan to speed up the commercialisation of INEST’s R&D work – including a potential listing on Shanghai’s STAR bourse (see this week’s “Talking Point”) – is the major reason for 90 of the scientists resigning at the same time.

The resignations have rattled some of Beijing’s senior leaders. A statement published by the State Council last week suggested that Vice Premier Liu He (head of the team tasked with negotiating a truce in the tariff war with Washington) has sent a special team to Hefei to investigate. That announcement also made INEST’s predicament public and the institute quickly became one of the most searched terms on Baidu and Sina Weibo.

A role at CAS was once a dream job for aspiring scientists but researchers are trading in the job security at the state-owned academy for better financial prospects in the private sector, the South China Morning Post said. “Authorities must examine whether scientists are being given a fair deal,” the newspaper added in an editorial.

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