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Research Funding

For chemists returning to China, a mixed reception

Returnees from the West are well funded but can struggle to fit in after years abroad

by Hepeng Jia, special to C&EN
April 23, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 13

 

Two people working in a chemistry lab.
Credit: Courtesy of Ye Juntao
Ye Juntao is teaching at Shanghai Jiao Tong University after postdoctoral studies in the US and Canada.

Chemist Ye Juntao completed postdoctoral studies at the University of Toronto, Columbia University, and Cornell University before setting up his lab at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in July 2019 as a tenure-track associate professor. He recently received a 2023 Thieme Chemistry Journals Award, honors that go to up-and-coming young researchers in chemical synthesis and catalysis.

“As a returnee scientist, I received good funding from the government and university that helped me enormously to roll out my research agenda,” says Ye, who primarily studies organic synthesis catalyzed by visible light. But, he adds, “I have to struggle for other support.”

Ye is one of the thousands of scientists of Chinese origin who in recent years have returned to China after studying at top overseas research institutions. They are finding that it can be tough as principal investigators to recruit enough doctoral and master’s students to work in their labs. Returnee scientists often have to strive to establish guanxi, a Chinese term for a network of relationships.

Most are happy they have returned to China, but the transition isn’t always easy.

Programs to bring back scientists like Ye, including the marquee Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), have operated for at least 15 years. They came under scrutiny in the US in 2018, when the Trump administration began to investigate recipients of China’s talent recruitment incentives, particularly the TTP.

Success in chemistry, particularly organic chemistry, isn’t a privilege of returnees.
Ye Juntao, chemistry professor, Shanghai Jiao Tong University

For example, in May 2019, the Emory University neuroscience professor Xiao-Jiang Li was fired for allegedly failing to disclose sources of research funding from China, including funding from the TTP. One year later, Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was indicted on charges of making false statements to federal authorities about his participation in the TTP. He was later found guilty.

Since then, the Chinese government hasn’t disclosed exact numbers of returnee scientists, but published data on students returning from overseas studies of all types show the growing importance of foreign education.

In 2019, the last year China’s Ministry of Education reported the number of returning overseas students, it said 580,300 came home after finishing their studies in foreign countries—an increase of almost 12% from 2018. The number of students leaving China for overseas studies at all degree levels rose by over 6% in 2019, to 700,350.

The TTP, launched in 2008 to recruit leading entrepreneurs and professor-level academics, amped up China’s already-​aggressive global talent hunt. Recipients could get more than 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) in research funding, plus a salary comparable to their salary in the West. In 2011, China added the Young Thousand Talents (YTT) program to recruit promising scientists, mostly of Chinese origin, under the age of 40. YTT beneficiaries received from the central government a tax-free income subsidy of 500,000 yuan and start-up grants of up to 3 million yuan.

TTP and YTT have become sensitive terms in China, and a search for them on Baidu.com, the main Chinese internet search engine, returns no results. In response to US concerns, China canceled both programs in 2021.

According to the official website of the now-defunct TTP, by mid-2017 the program had attracted more than 7,000 scientists and entrepreneurs, including 2,900 promising scientists under the YTT. An initiative equivalent to the YTT is the Outstanding Young Scholar (Overseas Section), which is operated by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and is ongoing.

Talent brings benefits

While many Chinese scientists praise the achievements of the recruitment operations, a study published in the journal Science in January provided some of the first statistical evaluation by analyzing the YTT program (2023, DOI: 10.1126/science.abq1218). The paper was written by policy researchers from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Tsinghua University, and the University of Hong Kong; using data on YTT participants’ publications and citations before they returned to China, the researchers found that those scientists were in the top 15% in their fields in terms of productivity.

The study also found that those with a faculty job in the West were more likely to decline to participate in the YTT program and the promise of a faculty position in China that comes with it. And the most productive scientists of Chinese origin, regardless of whether they had faculty positions when examined by the study, also tended to stay in the West.

“Although in the West there were worries that the Chinese recruitment programs would snatch talent from the United States and Europe, the reality is, for the smartest Chinese scientists, they won’t return to China if they have career development chances in the West,” says Yanbo Wang, an economics professor at the University of Hong Kong and a corresponding author of the Science paper.

The study also found that YTT returnees have more publications in top journals compared with Chinese scientists from the same doctoral institution, commencement year, and research field who choose to stay in the West. The difference, it found, is primarily due to better funding and larger research teams for the returnees.

“Most YTT recipients were postdoctoral researchers at overseas institutions. They didn’t have the resources to realize their ideas. When they had such resources upon returning to China, their output immediately increased,” Wang says.

Benefits to chemistry

Like other scientific fields, chemistry research in China is flourishing, thanks to the returnee chemists and generous funding. China’s overall R&D spending has kept on a double-digit growth path for more than 2 decades, reaching 3 trillion yuan ($435 billion) in 2022.

According to Nature Index 2022, which ranks countries and institutions according to the number of articles published in prestigious journals, each of the top 10 institutions for chemistry was a Chinese university, headed by the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was number 11. In the subdisciplines of organic chemistry and nanoscience, China has toppled the US to become the world’s number 1 in Nature Index in recent years.

A man working in a chemistry lab with others watching.
Credit: Courtesy of Lu Wei
Lu Wei, a chemist at Southern University of Science and Technology, says returnee and local scientists complement one another.

Lu Wei, a chemist who joined China’s Southern University of Science and Technology in the mid-2010s after working in Hong Kong, says the explosive advance of chemistry in China in recent years parallels the return of chemists funded by the YTT. Still, he says, the recent progress builds on the country’s earlier talent recruitment.

“Previously returned scientists in the late 1990s and early 2000s have developed decent infrastructure and research plans,” Lu says. “Productive young scientists joined them with good funding. On the other hand, YTT scientists with good ideas obtained overseas immediately found they could work on them with funding, newly purchased devices, and other research infrastructure.”

In the view of Ye, the Jiao Tong University chemist, hard work is more important than returnee status in his field of organic chemistry. Any success he enjoys is the result of ideas developed during his postdoctoral studies coupled with sufficient funding, instruments obtained after returning to China, and repeated tests in the lab, Ye says.

“Success in chemistry, particularly organic chemistry, isn’t a privilege of returnees. Many domestically trained colleagues can achieve the same if they work hard.”

Yan Hong, a geochemist at the Institute of Earth Environment at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says he chose to stay in China after earning his doctorate at USTC instead of going abroad for postdoctoral research. His view is that while the YTT is good for young returnees, it also stimulates domestically trained scientists, encouraging them to work hard for talent programs set up for them, such as the NSFC’s Outstanding Young Scholar Program, established in 2012. Yan is now a distinguished scientist and deputy director of his institute.

Returnees’ obstacles

While many scientists praise the YTT, Jiang Xuefeng, a chemist at East China Normal University who returned to China in 2011 after his postdoctoral career at the Scripps Research Institute in California, suggests that publication-based assessments of the program are too narrow. “There are many important demands for young chemists: contributing to industrial technologies, starting an innovative business, and communicating science to the public. None of these has been placed in YTT’s enrollment criteria and the Jiao Tong study,” Jiang says, referring to the Science paper published earlier this year.

Other researchers worry about the sustainability of YTT scholars’ productivity. Tang Li, a science policy researcher at Fudan University, conducted a study in 2019 of the time it took Chinese researchers to win a Changjiang scholarship, given to distinguished scientists under the age of 55. Tang and colleagues assessed the program’s 1,500 natural science awardees between 1999 and 2015 and found that it took 25% longer—about 2.3 years—for scientists at Chinese institutions who received a PhD at a foreign university than for domestically trained scientists.

For the smartest Chinese scientists, they won’t return to China if they have career development chances in the West.
Yanbo Wang, economics professor, the University of Hong Kong

“Our data are not comparable with those from YTT, but returnees’ adaptability to the local environment is a real challenge,” Tang says. Their paper, which appeared in the journal Science and Public Policy, found personal connection, or guanxi, to be the strongest predictor for a Chinese scientist’s promotion to Changjiang Scholar (2019, DOI: 10.1093/scipol/scz004). Those with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate from the same university were promoted the most quickly.

Several young returnee scientists reached by C&EN complained that a lack of local connections has impeded their ability to garner resources such as funding and graduate students. A YTT materials chemist, who asked not to be identified because of the critical nature of his comments, says it’s hard to compete with big, established research teams headed by renowned scientists. Although YTT scientists receive adequate funding, they can struggle to recruit good students and win the national grants that are signs of success.

In addition, YTT funding lasts for a set period, normally 5 years. Although the researchers who recently analyzed the YTT program found that its recipients had greater success than their overseas counterparts, some observers wonder if the success will continue after the money runs out—especially if the recipients developed their best ideas while overseas.

Yet Wang, the corresponding author, says his team found in follow-up studies that many YTT scientists formed good local connections, and some achieved critical milestone recognitions, such as an NSFC Distinguished Young Scholar award, which is granted to scientists under 45 who have made remarkable contributions.

While others worry about the ability of participants in talent programs to adapt to and thrive in the Chinese academic environment, Ning Li, who studies China’s science and innovation policies at Eastern Washington University, questions the way the programs concentrate resources on select scientists.

“Focusing resources on a limited number of scientists based on easily standardizable metrics such as publication and citation may impact the academic environment, discouraging long-term theoretical exploration,” Li says.

Wang says one of his paper’s conclusions is that the so-called China threat in the global hunt for scientific talent might be overestimated. “The best talent choose to remain [overseas], particularly if they have obtained overseas faculty positions,” he says. Another important lesson, he adds, is that the US and European countries and institutions must increase their support for promising young scientists.

Wang also warns that Western governments’ targeting of China-born scientists for involvement in the country’s recruitment programs, particularly the TTP, could backfire. “Instead of luring China-​originated scientists to stay [in the US], these investigations have helped to push them back to China,” Wang says.

Li agrees. Many of the Chinese nationals who stay in the US have less funding than they would if they returned to China. They choose to stay because of a less regimented research environment and greater academic freedom. “This competitiveness should be strengthened,” Li says. “Investigations targeting China-originated scientists impair academic freedom.”

Hepeng Jia is a freelance writer who reports on China.

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