Volume 85 Issue 22 | p. 5 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: May 28, 2007

China's Returnees

Department: Editor's Page

In last Wednesday's New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman's column was entitled "Laughing and Crying." He wrote about attending this year's commencement at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and observing that an overwhelming number of the Ph.D.s in physics went to Chinese students.

Friedman argued that instead of making it difficult for such students to remain in the U.S. after they graduate, as is now the case, we should be encouraging them to stay. "I think any foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in our country—in any subject—should be offered citizenship," he wrote. "I want them. The idea that we actually make it difficult for them to stay is crazy."

As anyone who reads C&EN regularly knows, the situation in chemistry is no different from that in physics. Fewer American natives are receiving Ph.D.s in chemistry. Look at any story in C&EN on a research advance, and the odds are that many or most of the coworkers—read, graduate students and postdocs—are Asian.

The situation, though, is even worse than Friedman suggests. As I learned on my recent trip to China, we are now losing highly trained chemists who did their graduate work in the U.S. 10 or 15 years ago, stayed in this country, worked in drug discovery, put down roots, and often became citizens. They are going back to China, where they are helping advance drug discovery to world-class status and making their fortunes in the bargain. They are called "returnees."

For example, take the case of WuXi PharmaTech, a contract pharmaceutical research provider that has enjoyed explosive growth since Ge Li founded the company in 2002. Li received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and was one of the founders of the U.S. drug discovery firm Pharmacopeia. About 50 of WuXi's 1,600-member scientific staff are returnees, many of them part of the company's management team.

C&EN Senior Correspondent Jean-François Tremblay and I interviewed Hai Mi, WuXi's vice president of corporate communications. Mi, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from New York University and an M.B.A from the University of Chicago, worked in drug discovery at Pfizer for 13 years. Here's what he said about returning to China:

"The sense of achievement, of pride, I have here at WuXi I could never have had in the U.S. at Pfizer. I could never have had a chance to see the sky there. I can have so much more impact back here at WuXi, bringing my ability and knowledge of the West to this company. This is the most exciting company in the most exciting business in the most exciting city in the most exciting country in the world."

At the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, still in its temporary quarters in the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park in Shanghai, Tremblay and I spoke with Yao-Chang Xu, NIBR executive director and head of chemistry. Xu received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago. He has 20 years of experience in drug discovery at Biochem Pharma, Lilly, and Novartis.

"I want to build an institute that can really impact Novartis," Xu told us. NIBR Shanghai will focus on infectious diseases in China and the rest of Asia, especially infectious causes of cancer such as hepatitis B virus. "About 500,000 people die of liver cancer each year in China," he said.

Eventually, NIBR will employ about 400 scientists. The first 100 or so, according to Xu, will be returnees. "We have to find the right people during the buildup phase," he said, "people who really understand the culture of drug discovery."

Xu told us that his wife had lived in the U.S. for 23 years. The older of his two sons was born in China but raised in the U.S. He will attend Boston University this fall. His younger son, who is 15, was born in Canada and raised in the U.S. But he is "making the transition to Shanghai very easily," Xu said, "learning Chinese quite quickly after refusing to learn it while living in the U.S."

We heard similar stories during many of our interviews in Shanghai. The U.S. can no longer take for granted that it can attract and retain top scientific talent, even if we do relax ill-conceived barriers to immigration.

Thanks for reading.

 

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

 
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