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China Hunts for Aliens. And Scientists.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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This week, China announced that it's relocating 9,110 villagers to make way for a giant telescope that -- among other tasks -- will search for extraterrestrial life. Once the unlucky residents are gone, the government will get down to the real business of the world's largest radio telescope: attracting the scientific talent necessary to transform China's economy.

That won't be easy. China leads the world in sending students abroad, with the very best often remaining there. Chinese science and engineering students are more likely than those of any other nationality to stay in the U.S. after completing their PhDs. The reasons include China's endemic cronyism in academic appointments and funding, a closed, censored Internet that cuts researchers off from the global scientific community, and a government-driven science culture.

In recent years, China has tried several different tacks to remedy this brain drain and advance a culture of innovation. In 2008, the government established the 1,000 Talents program to entice gifted scientists with big salaries and budgets. But top researchers have been reluctant to give up academic appointments back home, and the program has been wracked by allegations of fraud.

Another strategy is to throw money at the problem. Between 2004 and 2014, China increased its R&D budget by an average of 23 percent annually, and in 2012 overtook Europe in the proportion of its GDP that goes to research. But this boost masked a significant problem. According to a 2014 analysis by Nature, China has historically spent very little of its R&D on basic research and instead focused on projects that can bring quick, tangible results (like consumer products). That's not the kind of cutting-edge research that brings the best and the brightest to Shanghai.

China's science bureaucrats are also eyeing foreign models. The U.S. has provided one instructive example, especially following World War II, when generous immigration policies and ample funding for everything from space exploration to the Human Genome Project lured top European scientists. More recently, the multibillion-dollar Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has attracted top particle physicists and engineers from around the world.

Thus the massive radio telescope that will soon displace thousands from the Chinese countryside. It will do much more than search for aliens. As the largest telescope of its kind, by far, it's likely to provide fundamental insights into basic questions of astronomy and cosmology. In short: If you're a radio scientist, especially a Chinese one, that's the place where you can do cutting-edge research.

Other ambitious projects are in the works as well. Last fall, China announced that it will begin work on the world's largest particle accelerator -- a successor to the Large Hadron Collider -- in 2020. State media quoted Gerard't Hooft, the 1999 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, saying the accelerator "will bring hundreds, probably thousands, of top class scientists" to China.

And the payoff isn’t just economic. The prestige and status that accrue to countries that succeed in science is something China’s leaders covet. Days after a U.S.-based team announced it had confirmed the existence of gravitational waves, Chinese scientists proposed three separate, highly expensive projects to extend the country's space research. The Communist Party's official newspaper ran an editorial simply titled, “Why did we miss the gravitational waves?” Clearly, the intent is not to miss the next big discovery.

There's no guarantee that any of these projects will succeed, of course. President Xi Jinping's ideological crackdown has hurt the spirit of free inquiry in China, while the scientific establishment remains highly politicized, slow to make decisions and without clear leadership. Even so, China now has the financial might and the experience to create scientific instruments and projects that will attract the best and brightest researchers. The rest of the world should brace for the competition.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net