China's Reverse Brain Drain

Beijing - The lab equipment is still being installed in the new life sciences school at Beijing's Tsinghua University. But the hallways are already lined with posters heralding an early achievement: the hiring of Chinese faculty from Stanford, Harvard, and other elite institutions overseas. The mission, says Dean Shi Yigong, a former Princeton professor who is a pioneer in the study of cell death, is to build a world-class research center to "solve the basic mysteries of biology."

Shi is one of the biggest catches in a mounting campaign to lure China's brightest minds back home. Last year, Beijing launched the Thousand Talents Program, offering top scientists grants of 1 million yuan (about $146,000), fat salaries, and generous lab funding.

The goal is to address the biggest roadblock to China's aspirations of becoming an innovation powerhouse: an acute shortage of seasoned research scientists. Accomplished physicists, biologists, and mathematicians—who might produce technological breakthroughs and build key research programs—have long balked at low pay and a university system marred by corruption, cronyism, and lax standards. But now, China's economic boom and surging government investment in research are making mainland university posts more attractive. A decade ago, only 1 in 100 leading Chinese scientists in the U.S. would have considered returning, says Rao Yi, a former Northwestern neuroscience professor who is dean of Peking University's life sciences school. Today, he says, half would. "Now, there is a chance of recruiting the rising stars of Harvard," says Rao.

Higher pay helps, but returnees say the main allure is the chance to build a science program from the ground up. While U.S. labs are struggling for funds, China is expanding. Shi says he earns less in China than at Princeton, where he ran a structural biology lab and helped found a drug-discovery company. But at Tsinghua, he helped design a life sciences program with 1,500 students. So far, Shi has hired 22 scientists from the U.S. to set up labs and has made offers to an additional 15.

HUGE PAY DISPARITIESSometimes the perks lavished on returnees can create tension with existing faculty. Wei Jia, an expert in using modern science to study traditional Chinese medicine, says his annual pay package at Shanghai's Jiatong University was worth about $10,000. "It really is irritating that the good pay is reserved for people who are still in the U.S.," Wei says. Last year, Wei left Shanghai to run a new research center at the University of North Carolina, where his package is in six figures.

There are still many holdouts. Carnegie Mellon University electrical engineering professor Jimmy Zhu was tempted by his alma mater in Wuhan with a $140,000 salary, subsidized housing, and more than $1 million to start a lab. But Zhu decided to stay at CMU, in part because he doesn't think "the scientific environment has matured enough to promote real innovation." Also, Chinese officials tend to award grants based on personal connections rather than scientific merit.

Returnees are trying to change that. Tsinghua, for instance, now makes longer-term grants to top scientists, allowing them wider latitude to conduct truly innovative research. And a new curriculum will focus more on problem-solving than rote learning, Shi says. As such changes take root, he says, China should acquire a knack for turning theoretical research into high-tech products. "When you have the right people," he predicts, "changes will happen spontaneously."

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