Booming China Lures Key Professors Home From US
China is enticing their educated citizens back from America. Highly educated Asians are choosing to return to China, which says a lot about where America finds itself today. Who would have thought years ago that this would be the result of America’s “democracy”. China will now benefit from all the education, knowledge and training America put into these scientists and will most likely take over as the place to be from America. Obama recently retrenched 40 000 NASA scientists due to his short sightedness – where did he think these scientists would end up? America is fast losing the “most powerful nation in the world” title.
When Weiping Li came from China in 1982 to study engineering at Stanford University, he didn’t plan to stay long. But after earning his Ph.D., he found that the best opportunities were in the United States, and he was pleased to land a job as a professor of electrical engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
He became a U.S. citizen and raised a family. But earlier this year, he left the U.S. to work in a country where the economy is booming and universities are investing in the future: his native China.
Recruited under a Chinese government program called the “Thousand Talents,” Li was named dean of the prestigious information science division of the University of Science and Technology of China. As an incentive, the university gave him a 2,000-square-foot house and a tax-free relocation payment of nearly $150,000.
“I see it as an opportunity,” said Li, a USTC alumnus. “It’s just like why we came to the U.S. The U.S. at the time had more opportunities than we could imagine in China in 1982.”
Li is one of hundreds of top Chinese-born scientists who are returning to their homeland to take prestigious posts at universities and research laboratories. China’s goal is to jump-start innovation in science and technology, an area that has lagged behind even as the country’s economy has surpassed Japan to become the second largest in the world.
Known as “sea turtles,” the returning scientists are offered the chance to set up their own laboratories, head university departments, or take other high-level jobs in academia and business. Two returnees from Europe have been appointed government ministers of health and science and technology.
“They are going after the A-grade players,” said Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur-turned-academic with ties to Harvard Law School, Duke University and the University of California at Berkeley. “They are basically doing everything they can. They give you labs. They give you everything you want. They make you feel like a national hero.”
High-profile returnees include Yigong Shi, who left Princeton University to become life sciences dean at Tsinghua University; Rao Yi, who left Northwestern University to become life sciences dean at Peking University; and Shiyi Chen, who left Johns Hopkins University to become dean of engineering at Peking University.
China has waited patiently for decades for some of its brightest and most accomplished scientists to return. Until recently, it could not offer high-quality research facilities, adequate funding or an attractive research environment.
But in the past few years, the government has invested heavily in infrastructure, constructing campuses and science parks to accommodate what it hopes will be a boom in homegrown technological advances, particularly in such fields as nanotechnology, computer science and pharmaceuticals. The government’s goal is to turn new discoveries into products as quickly as possible.
Richard Appelbaum, a professor of sociology and global studies at UC Santa Barbara, said he recently visited a vast new research facility outside Shanghai.
“This is a science park the size of a city,” he recounted. “It’s all brand-spanking-new buildings that have been put up by the government of Suzhou. They are occupied by all these startup companies, working in biology and at the interface of nano and biology. It’s all very impressive, at least to an outsider.”
With the “Thousand Talents” program, China is not only luring “sea turtles,” but also showing new flexibility by negotiating part-time deals with “sea gulls,” who split their time between universities in China and the U.S.
One “sea gull” is UC San Francisco professor Chao Tang, who also is founder and director of the Center for Theoretical Biology at Peking University, where he teaches part of the year.
A leader in the field of quantitative biology, Tang said holding positions at the two universities gives him the best of both worlds: He can stay connected with experts in his field in the U.S. while still being part of the transformation of science in China.
Tang recognizes that people with his skills provide a crucial component that China is lacking as it attempts to accelerate its capacity to innovate.
“They need people like us to be leaders, to build up institutes, to build up centers, to build up departments and to attract young people around us,” he said. “They have almost everything else: money, buildings, bright students. But what is needed is what is called the ‘soft environment.’ People plus the system. To build a system you need people.”
U.S. researchers are finding it increasingly difficult to win federal grants, and public universities such as University of California have been faced with massive budget cuts. Meanwhile, top scientists in China are more concerned about how to spend money than how to get it.
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