China extends brain drain campaign to young scientists

Under-35-year-olds will be targeted to return to China Copyright: Flickr/IRRI Images

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[BEIJING] China is set to expand its ambitious scheme to attract the cream of the scientific diaspora back to the country so it includes young scientists as well.

Li Zhiyong, vice-minister of the Organisation Department of the Central Committee, told a conference of the High-level Overseas Talents and National Development Strategy in Beijing last month (28 September) that under-35-year-olds will be targeted to return to China. This issue was also a focus of discussions at the conference organised by the Western Returned Scholars Association (WRSA).

China’s Medium- and Long-Term Talent Development Plan (2010–2020), which was announced earlier this year, involves offering resources to established scientists from the United States or Europe who return to China under a scheme known as the Qianren plan, or Thousand Talent Plan.

Although the budget is unknown, each scientist who works under the Qianren scheme has received one million Chinese Yuan (US$150,000) in settlement support from the government.

But scientists at the workshop appealed to the Chinese government to improve the treatment of young scientists, according to the vice chairman of the WRSA, Wang Huiyao.

"The pay for young scientists, including postdoctoral students, is very low, so it is too difficult to recruit excellent overseas doctorates," Qianren recipient Yigong Shi, a structural biologist who left Princeton University two years ago to lead the schools of medicine and life sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told SciDev.Net.

Shi added that even students who do their doctorates in China seek to continue their studies abroad because of the low salaries at home.

"The treatment of young scientists must improve," he said.

China could learn from India’s approach, said Wang Huiyao, who is also director-general of the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing.  

In order to entice young scientists who have trained abroad to return home, India has doubled its life-sciences budget.

"China needs to learn from India’s tactics," said Wang. "Chinese authorities have realised the shortcomings of the current tactics and the government will take corresponding measures to solve it."

It will not be easy to attract young scientists back to China, said Lijun Wang, a physicist who returned under the Thousand Talent Plan and opened the Joint Institute of Measurement Science — a collaboration between Tsinghua University and the National Institute of Meteorology.

The problem, he said, is that "the truly outstanding young scientists may still get better positions abroad ".

But, he added, there should be a fine balance. China should have a combination of young talents and more senior scientists who have a strong track record and the vision and ability to lead teams.