Science

With generous funding and top-tier jobs, China seeks to lure science talent from abroad

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New big science projects like the world’s largest radio telescope, make China an attractive destination.

Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

SHANGHAI, CHINA—When astronomer Marko Krčo was offered a chance to help commission the world’s largest radio telescope, he didn’t hesitate. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Krčo, who has Serbian and U.S. citizenship and earned his Ph.D. from Cornell University. In 2016, Krčo became a postdoc at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing; he spends much of this time in a remote corner of Guizhou province in southwest China, where the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) was completed in 2016. “Whether professionally or privately, every day yields a new challenge or a new insight,” Krčo says.

The Chinese government, eager to sustain the country’s rapid emergence as a scientific superpower, is opening the door wider for people like him. On 22 May, the Ministry of Science and Technology issued guidelines that encourage science ministries and commissions to consult foreign experts and attract non-Chinese to full-time positions within China. In a striking change, foreign scientists are now allowed to lead public research projects. 

In the past decade, China has aimed to build up its scientific capacity by luring back some of the tens of thousands of Chinese scientists working abroad. The latest measures emphasize that non-Chinese talent is also welcome. Drafted in December 2017 but not previously made public, they are “a confirmation of things that have been going on for a while,” says Denis Simon, an expert on China’s science policy at Duke Kunshan University in China, a branch campus of the Durham, North Carolina–based Duke University.

Simon says foreign scientists are drawn by China’s increased spending on R&D, which is rising twice as fast as its economic growth. Increasingly ambitious big science projects, such as a massive particle accelerator now under study, are a lure as well, says Cao Cong, a science policy specialist at the University of Nottingham Ningbo in China, an affiliate of the U.K. university. The opportunity for foreign scientists to serve as principal investigators for publicly funded programs is a significant new incentive, says Liang Zheng, who studies science and technology policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

“There is really only one reason why I moved: the money,” says 35-year-old U.S. ecologist Luke Gibson, who transferred from The University of Hong Kong (HKU) to Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen, a booming city just across the border from Hong Kong, last September. His startup package at SUSTech totals 10 million yuan ($1.6 million), more than 40 times his research support at HKU. “It’s rare to find such an enormous level of support,” he says. Roughly half comes from the national government’s Thousand Talents Plan, aimed at bringing in overseas talent, with matching funding from the Shenzhen government and SUSTech. The support means he can hire four postdocs and extend his ecological studies to the Tibetan Himalayas, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the karst mountain region of south-central China, and the Pearl River delta. And whereas Gibson was on a 3-year fixed-term appointment at HKU, at SUSTech he is a tenure-track associate professor.

Foreign academics can also join the faculty of one of nine overseas universities that now have Chinese mainland campuses, typically set up with local institutions. Most teach in English, making it easy for non-Chinese academics to feel at home. Duke Kunshan, for example, “recruited faculty from all over the world,” says Simon, who is the university’s executive vice chancellor. Roughly two-thirds of the more than 40 inaugural faculty members are non-Chinese and, like their counterparts at local universities, they can apply for national and local government research grants.

Relocating to China comes with challenges. Gibson teaches in English but needs Chinese language help handling administrative matters and grant applications. Restricted access to internet sites such as Google is also a hurdle. “My research and my teaching regularly rely on access to online resources and search platforms [that are] blocked in China, so this is an impediment to my work,” Gibson says. But he has found workarounds. China shut down many virtual private networks, which provide access to blocked overseas sites, but a few remain. “There’s a saying: ‘Everything in China is difficult, but nothing is impossible,’ which I think reflects the situation very accurately,” Gibson says.

China’s push to bring in foreign talent comes at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump is reportedly considering limiting student and academic visas in certain high-tech areas. That would be a mistake, Simon says. The one-way transfer of knowledge and expertise from the United States to China is a thing of the past, he says: “China increasingly has something to offer us in our own research endeavors.” 

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