Not Going Abroad and Not Coming Home

The large presence of Asian graduate students and postdocs in Western science departments is a constant theme in reporting about the international research scene. The Asian countries’ attitudes and policies regarding foreign study, though, have received far less attention. But, a pair of articles in University World News suggest that China and Japan face contrasting challenges: Japan needs to send more people abroad to study science, while China needs to do a better job of luring foreign-trained scientists back home.

That’s too bad because scientists who “have worked in foreign countries as full-time researchers,” tend to be “more actively involved in research exchanges at their institutions, and their productivity in terms of papers in the past three years was superior to that of researchers without overseas work experience.” Those who have been abroad are also more likely to have published in English and with international collaborators, both of which increase research impact. 

China, on the other hand, is succeeding at sending its scientists overseas but failing at bringing them back home. The desire to entice gifted young Chinese scientists to return home inspired China’s Thousand Talents program of lavish inducements, including high salaries, large start-up packages, and prestigious positions. But, writes Cong Cao of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, the policy has had spotty success in luring back top talent. Aspects of China’s scientific culture make many “first-rate academics reluctant to return home to participate in the country’s expected rise to superpower status.” 

“The Chinese research system favours instant results and does not tolerate failure. Vision and strategic thinking, which are held in such high regard in the West, are off the agenda.” In addition, “there is growing evidence that plagiarism, fraud, and manipulation of data are interwoven through China’s research process. With the scientific community failing to take action, many potential returnees are reluctant to enter this environment.”  Solving these problems requires “culture change” to produce “a new research culture in which every scientist, whether trained overseas or at home, has the opportunity to demonstrate value,” Cao argues.

Furthermore, the importance in Chinese society and careers of guanxi, or personal connections, puts researchers who have been away for years at a disadvantage compared to those who stayed at home, and “reduces their access to sources of research funding,” Cao states. It also complicates the task of finding collaborators.

The writers see some progress. “The [Japanese] government is trying to increase the budget to support students and researchers studying or working in foreign countries,” Wada notes. The situation in China is improving.” Cao adds. “A special amendment to the law on the progress of science and technology was passed in late 2007, acknowledging that failure is part of the innovation process. Yet there remains tremendous pressure on scientists, including returnees, for immediate results.”

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