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[BEIJING] China's plans to attract 'overseas Chinese' researchers to help drive its scientific progress are being undermined by the "irresponsibility" of those being hired, a senior US-based Chinese mathematician has warned.

Shing-tung Yau, a Chinese-born professor based at Harvard University, made the remarks at a seminar on mathematics in Beijing on 3 August.

For 20 years, Yau has helped China organise international scientific exchanges and attract foreign researchers of Chinese origin to teach and do research in China.

According to a report in the Beijing-based newspaper Science Times on 18 August, Yau said that many of the foreign researchers failed to do full-time research, as required by their contracts, yet were paid several times more than their local counterparts.

“Some of them use their teaching time to travel across China attending academic meetings, while others just repeat research they have already published overseas,” said Yau.

He said this has not only wasted precious research funds but also affected the careers of younger local scientists, who might otherwise fill the posts taken by the overseas professors, whom he calls "irresponsible".

In recent years, several institutions including the ministries of education and science, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and leading universities have introduced programmes to attract leading foreign researchers — mainly overseas Chinese — to work in China for several months a year with attractive salaries, and tens of thousands of dollars of research funding.

In April, the National Natural Science Foundation of China began offering annual grants of one million yuan (US$120,000) for up to four years to overseas Chinese researchers with foreign citizenship (see China offers research grants to overseas Chinese).

Despite criticism by Yao and others, Ji Fusheng, a senior science policy researcher affiliated to the Ministry of Science and Technology, says that these programmes should not be blamed, as they have played an active role in helping China attract hundreds of internationally renowned researchers.

A major problem, says Ji, is that many Chinese universities and research institutes only want to use their relationship with these leading overseas scholars to increase the institution's reputation and gain more research funding.

They do not care whether the leading foreign researchers can do truly important research, Ji told SciDev.Net.

He says employers should design better contracts for visiting scholars, and that the peer-review system for research they produce be more stringent to ensure the work is original.

Ji Fusheng is a regional advisor to SciDev.Net.

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