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China Homecoming

As funding grows, more Chinese chemists who have studied abroad are returning home to become professors

by Shawna Williams
June 10, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 23

Credit: Shuli You/ Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry
Graduate student Zepeng Yang at work in You’s laboratory at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry.
Graduate student Zepeng Yang at work in Shuli You’s laboratory at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry.
Credit: Shuli You/ Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry
Graduate student Zepeng Yang at work in You’s laboratory at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry.

When Kuiling Ding joined the faculty of China’s Zhengzhou University as an assistant professor in 1990, he signed a five-year contract and in exchange received 5,000 yuan—about $1,350 according to the exchange rate of the time—in housing assistance. “At that time 5,000 yuan was still a big number,” he says—at least compared with his salary, which was less than 1,000 yuan per month.

Now director of the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC), Ding is able to offer new assistant professors a starting salary of around 300,000 yuan ($49,000) per year, lab space in a gleaming new building, and housing assistance to cope with Shanghai’s sky-high real estate prices. Nearly all of SIOC’s new faculty are eligible for a special government program to recruit researchers with international experience, meaning that they can also receive about $1 million in start-up funds.

In fact, 50 of SIOC’s 54 research professors have postdoctoral experience from an institution overseas, and some also earned their Ph.D.s abroad. “Over 10 years ago, most excellent researchers stayed abroad because the differences in the living standards, the research facilities, and the funding support between China and developed countries were too big at that time,” Ding says. “But now the gap is getting smaller and smaller.”

It’s a refrain echoed by nearly everyone familiar with chemistry in China: Science funding in the country is booming, and the quality and quantity of research produced are greater than ever. Talented Chinese chemists trained abroad are taking notice, and many are heading back to their native country for jobs. At the same time, Chinese chemists on both sides of the Pacific say that if their country is to attract its best researchers to come back home, it will need to make changes that go beyond what money can buy.

There’s no doubt that money has had a huge impact on the rise of Chinese science, however. From 2006 through 2011 the country’s R&D spending rose by more than 20% each year on average; that rate of growth slowed last year to 17.9%, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Across all American Chemical Society journals, China’s share of published articles has risen from less than 1% in 1998 to nearly 13% in 2012.

“The rate of change is extraordinary,” says Brian P. Coppola, a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has been visiting China regularly since 2000 and recently spent a year teaching chemistry at Peking University. On many of his visits, Coppola interviewed prospective graduate students, and he’s seen that change reflected in their ambitions. “In 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, it was all about coming to the U.S., finding jobs with American companies, and staying,” he says. “Practically to a student now, it’s ‘I want to come, get a great education, and then go back and help China.’ ”

To provide students like these with extra incentive to return, beginning in the late 1990s the central government and the Chinese Academy of Sciences put in place a series of recruiting programs aimed at people trained overseas. These programs help enable Ding and recruiters at other institutions to offer generous start-up packages and some relocation assistance.

Returnees also cite China’s improved quality of life—particularly evident in large eastern cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, where most research institutes and top-tier universities are located—as a reason why coming back doesn’t represent the hardship it once did.

Credit: Fang Lin/Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry
Improved resources, such as the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry’s newest building, the Junmou Building, are drawing chemists back to China.
The Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry’s newest building, the Junmou building.
Credit: Fang Lin/Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry
Improved resources, such as the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry’s newest building, the Junmou Building, are drawing chemists back to China.

Asked why he chose to return to SIOC, where he earned his Ph.D., organometallic chemist and professor Shuli You says, “I’m Chinese. I just never thought about staying in the U.S.” During his five years abroad, You completed a postdoc at Scripps Research Institute, in La Jolla, Calif., and worked for two years as a principal investigator at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation.

Others take longer to make it home, but the intent is the same. Xiaogang Peng, now a chemistry professor at Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, earned his Ph.D. in China but then spent 15 years in the U.S., eventually landing an endowed professorship at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. But, he says, “I never thought I would stay. After 15 years I still felt China was very much my home.” He returned in 2009, in part because he saw that universities in China were changing rapidly and believed that he could have a positive impact on the education system.

Still, the decision to return home can be complicated. Take the influence of family, for example. Peidong Yang, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a native of China, says that most of today’s trainees from China were born after the country’s family control policies took effect and thus are only children. They feel that the responsibility of caring for their aging parents rests on their shoulders, he says. But for those with a spouse or children who prefer to stay abroad, family considerations can pull in the opposite direction. SIOC’s Ding says that one challenge he faces in recruiting is that many potential faculty members are parents, and they don’t want to put their children in Chinese schools, where competition and pressure are notoriously high.

Another double-edged sword is the pace of change in China generally, and within the research enterprise in particular. For many people, this represents an exciting opportunity, says Mei Li, an associate professor at East China Normal University’s Institute of Higher Education. In 2011, Li spent a year at UC Los Angeles, interviewing native Chinese academics in various fields about their plans. “There are fundamental changes going on in research in China, so they want to be part of that,” she explains.

Peng agrees that for researchers like himself, who have a high tolerance for uncertainty, China is an exciting place to be. But it’s not for everyone, he says, because the Chinese university system is still in flux. Although SIOC is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, not the university system, You experienced the downside of the system’s rapid changes as soon as he returned: The lab and office space he’d been promised weren’t ready, and his group had to work in borrowed space for close to six months.

Peng cites this type of stumbling block as a key reason why China’s best chemists still tend to settle in the U.S. Scientifically, “the U.S. is still the center of the universe,” he says. “Over there, you have everything in place, and you just go ahead and run as fast as you can.”

Another major factor keeping top talent away—and limiting the quality of China’s research output—is the importance of personal relationships in securing research funding, sources tell C&EN. Berkeley’s Yang calls this China’s “soft research environment” and says that compared with the hard research environment of buildings and instrumentation, it has been slower to change. “How you do promotion, how you evaluate scientific accomplishment, and the peer review system for getting funding are not fair enough, transparent enough,” he says.

Others are more blunt. In 2010 Yigong Shi and Yi Rao, two returnees from the U.S. who are the deans of the schools of life sciences at Tsinghua University and Peking University, respectively, penned a blistering commentary on the problem for Science (2010, DOI: 10.1126/science.1196916). “To obtain major grants in China, it is an open secret that doing good research is not as important as schmoozing with powerful bureaucrats and their favorite experts,” they wrote. “A significant proportion of researchers in China spend too much time on building connections and not enough time attending seminars, discussing science, doing research, or training students.” Rather than working to change the system, Shi and Rao wrote, new returnees quickly become resigned to it and even perpetuate it.

So what are the prospects for change? The problem of favoritism is widely recognized as standing in the way of China’s scientific progress, and the country’s leaders see topflight research as key to its continued economic growth. But those pushing for reform, such as Shi and Rao, are working against ancient and deeply ingrained cultural traditions that put personal relationships at the heart of how things get done. Given this, Yang says it’s hard to predict how long it will take to effect significant change in the soft research environment, but he believes improvement is likely within the next decade. “I’m very positive about it—they are making good progress already,” he says.

Zheng Huang, who joined SIOC in 2011 after completing a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a postdoc at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, does not see favoritism as a major problem at his institution. Connections are important everywhere, he says, but “I think if we are good enough, it’s not the number one issue.” Like many of his colleagues at SIOC, he was able to get a job there despite not having graduated from the institution or having other close ties with people there, he points out. Rather, because he always intended to return to China, he kept an eye on faculty openings there during his time abroad and networked with researchers in China.

Huang also believes that his successful funding proposal to the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) was evaluated on its merit. He says he bases that statement on his experience as a reviewer for NSFC and on the foundation’s reputation among his colleagues. Shi and Rao also credit NSFC with fair evaluation of proposals but say its grants are not as large as those given by other funding bodies that do weight decisions heavily on connections.

Huang is one of 16 SIOC chemistry professors who earned their Ph.D. and did a postdoc abroad, compared with 34 who earned a doctorate in China but did a postdoc abroad, and four who did neither, says Ding.

Researchers such as Huang are much less likely to return than are those who earned a Ph.D. in China, mostly because of the longer time spent away, according to David Zweig, a social scientist at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology who studies returnees to mainland China. “Unless they’ve gone back on a regular basis and built up a really close relationship with someone back in China who can help them get a job, they’ll have a hard time getting a job, grants, and tenure,” he says.

In contrast, “if you left China for a postdoc, let’s say for two or three years, and the professor who sent you out is still in a senior position back in China, the probability of returning is much higher,” Zweig says. He points to a study from Oak Ridge Institute for Science & Education showing that 92% of Chinese who received a Ph.D. in the U.S. in any field in 2002 were still in the U.S. in 2007.

So it may be that SIOC, as one of the country’s top institutions for basic chemistry research, has been exceptionally successful in attracting this elusive breed of returnee. But many report anecdotally that paths like Huang’s are in fact not uncommon now in chemistry. Bianxiao Cui, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 2002 and is now an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford University, says, “I do see there is a big change. When I was a graduate student, we knew that the job opportunities here are better. But nowadays when the first-year graduate students come here they know there are a lot of opportunities in China as well.”

Whether they went abroad as graduate students or later, young returnees have reshaped Chinese science and SIOC, says Ding, who is 47 years old. “They are doing pretty well because they have a much better background than my generation,” as well as better support, he says. Zweig says that over time, returnees have boosted research in several ways: by filling in for the “lost generation” that came of age during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s to ’70s, when universities were closed; by replacing less-qualified senior researchers; and by seeding subspecialties that the country was lacking.


Ang Li, a synthetic chemist who joined SIOC in 2010, says earlier returnees had a huge impact on his own education. He cites Zhen Yang, his undergraduate supervisor at Peking University, as an example. Yang worked at Scripps and at Harvard Medical School before returning to China in 2002. “Traditionally we just learned some very old-school chemistry, but he started to bring the literature into teaching and to tell us what was happening in the U.S. at that time,” Li says. He credits Yang with training an impressive cadre of future academics and industry researchers. Li himself went on to earn his Ph.D. in the same lab at Scripps where Yang had done a postdoc. He then completed a brief research fellowship at the Institute of Chemical & Engineering Scien­ces in Singapore before returning to China.

Zhejiang University’s Peng cautions that today’s returnees shouldn’t expect to have the towering individual impact of earlier pioneers like Yang, because chemistry in China has come such a long way. Even so, both Peng and Li note that there are still contributions to be made. Says Li, “You are helping to develop the system, so it’s very exciting.”

Shawna Williams is a freelance journalist in Baltimore.


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