Jan 10, 2023 - Science

China talent program increased young scientists' productivity, study says

Illustration of tow hands holding test tubes facing each other over a background of stripes and stars

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Young Chinese scientists recruited back to China through a government talent program went on to publish more scientific papers than their counterparts who remained overseas, according to a new analysis published in the journal Science.

Why it matters: The U.S., China, and other nations are competing to attract top talent to fuel innovation and cement their science and tech leadership.

  • "If we perceive the 20th century as a century of international trade and manufacturing, the 21st century is more about a knowledge-based economy and brain power truly matters a lot," says Yanbo Wang, who studies innovation policy at the University of Hong Kong and is a co-author of the study.
  • Policymakers will have to figure out which tools help to recruit and retain talent, he says.
  • The study authors point to "access to greater funding and larger research teams" as driving the productivity of scientists who received funding from China's Young Thousand Talents (YTT) program.

Background: The YTT program began in 2010 and offered more than 3,500 young researchers (typically under 40 years old) funding and benefits to relocate full-time to China between 2011 and 2017. Foreign-born scientists are eligible for grants but the program has largely attracted Chinese-born researchers who received their graduate degrees abroad.

  • The YTT program is one of many talent recruitment programs in China and a branch of the Thousand Talents Plan, a large, loosely defined program that began in 2008 with the aim of recruiting top-caliber scientists to work with China.
  • The controversial Thousand Talents Plan often allowed or even encouraged recruits to remain at their U.S. institutions while also working in China, drawing scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice as a potential conduit for intellectual property theft and espionage. A Trump-era China Initiative to combat possible Chinese espionage in the U.S. was shuttered after facing allegations of racial profiling of scientists, and cases fell apart.
  • The YTT program, in contrast, requires scientists to work in China on a full-time basis, which reduces concerns about conflicts of interest and intellectual property compliance, Wang says.

Details: Wang and his colleagues studied 339 young Chinese scientists who accepted YTT offers and returned to China, and 73 who rejected the offers.

  • They found more than half of those that accepted the grants received PhDs from the world's top 100 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs.
  • The number of annual publications from the researchers in the five years before they returned to China was also analyzed, and by that metric, the group that accepted the YTT grants was in the top 15% of all early-career scientists in the U.S. with Chinese surnames, the authors reported.

Yes, but: The researchers who didn't accept the YTT grants were on average in the top 10% of scientists — what the authors define as "top-caliber" — and were more likely to have faculty appointments than to work in someone else's lab.

  • The scientists who stayed also had more research funding than those who accepted YTT grants.

But, but, but... The productivity of the researchers who returned to China rose in the seven years after they went back, compared to those who stayed in the U.S.

  • They published 27% more papers — and more papers in high-impact journals — and were more likely to be the last authors, an indication they led the research as principal investigators (PIs) of their own teams.
  • "They didn’t have the opportunity to become PIs in the U.S. and EU but in the YTT they were able to become independent researchers," Wang says, adding the data illustrates the success of China's YTT program and reflects the difficulty young researchers can have in accessing funding in the U.S. and European Union.

The intrigue: The impact of the YTT program on publication output was largest in resource-intensive fields like chemistry, life sciences, and engineering — researchers in those areas who returned to China outperformed their peers who remained in the U.S.

  • The same effect wasn't seen in mathematics and theoretical physics, which require less lab research and equipment.
  • "This is where the U.S. and Canada are attractive" because there is more academic freedom, Wang says.

The big picture: Publication number is just one metric of scientific impact and doesn't necessarily capture the ways in which a researcher may drive innovation and scientific collaboration, geographer Qingfang Wang from the University of California, Riverside, told Nature.

What to watch: If China's talent programs are scaled up, it "would offer science-oriented international students a viable alternative to U.S. universities and institutions" and "may disrupt the current model of university science in the U.S." that heavily relies on foreign students," the authors of the recent analysis write.

Go deeper