During the last two decades, the Chinese government has substantially increased public research funding to its higher education institutions (HEIs), and the main form of these grants is project-based competitive funding. These supports have promoted China’s scientific productivity remarkably. However, many critics questioned whether they also improved scholars’ research quality, especially in the social sciences and the humanities (SS&H). To address this issue, this exploratory qualitative study investigated how social scientists consider the role of such funding in their academic research activities, which could provide insights for reforming research policies in China.
The author carried out semi-structured interviews with seven scholars in SS&H in three research-intensive universities in Beijing. To analyze interview data, the author adopts Latour and Woolgar’s theory of “cycle of credibility” (CC). CC regards knowledge production as a process of credibility accumulation and reinvestment; funding is a type of credibility and it can be converted into equipment and staff, and then into data, arguments and publications, which bring recognition and then again will be converted into funding (Latour & Woolgar, 1986).
Findings suggest that the CC and the role of funding differ between scholars who mainly conduct empirical research and those conduct theoretical studies. For empirical scholars, funding is an indispensable part of their CC and is a prerequisite for establishing a research team and collecting first-hand data. Only on this basis can they put forward arguments, write and publish papers, and then get recognition. CC of these scholars is similar to that of biological scientists in Latour and Woolgar’s book, but one difference is that funding in China’s context can directly bring recognition to scholars, especially those granted by state research council. This is because competition of these funding is fierce and funding itself becomes an indicator of research excellence. Moreover, many universities regard funding as one standard of scholars’ performance assessment, promotion, and reward, which turn funding into a kind of symbolic capital. For theoretical scholars, they do not cost much to do research, so their CC essentially consists of argument, publication, and recognition; funding is not an indispensable part. Although funding may bring some recognition, it has little effect on the research itself. However, due to the symbolic value, many scholars are compelled or encouraged by their institutions to apply for funding, regardless of whether it is needed or not. This issue may impair their academic research, especially those who mainly do theoretical studies, because funding application and management usually consume much time that would otherwise be available for research. It is suggested that HEIs pay attention to its research evaluation practice to avoid its adverse impacts on scholars’ autonomy in terms of funding application.
The contribution of the study is that it indicates the different functions that funding has in different social scientists’ knowledge production and points out how funding may hinder scholars’ academic research; it also describes the variations of CC in SS&H in China’s context.
Errong GUO is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Education at Peking University. Her research interests include academic career, knowledge production, and graduate education.