With great fanfare, Sichuan Agricultural University held a ceremony two weeks ago to announce that it was awarding a 13.5-million yuan prize (US$2 million) to a group of its researchers, for a publication in the journal Cell.
The announcement triggered social-media chatter about how much is too much when it comes to rewarding research success. Li Ping, director of the university’s rice research institute and a co-author of the published paper, was forced to clarify in a blogpost that most of the money — 13 million yuan — was actually for grants towards future research. Only the 0.5 million yuan extra was a prize, and that is being split among 27 people: no one will retire in luxury from this. Li further justified the prize by writing that researchers at small universities in China have difficulty getting stable grants, so funds such as those provided by the university are crucial for groups like his to continue their promising research.
The discovery of a disease-resistant gene by Li and his team could help countries around the world to secure their food supply. The university has a right to be excited. But is an instant cash injection — the prize was announced on Friday 30 June, the day after the manuscript was published — the right way to celebrate?