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Brain drain and the rise of China

January 25, 2010

Scientists in the United States were not overly surprised in 2008 when the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland awarded a $10 million research grant to a Princeton University molecular biologist, Shi Yigong…

The surprise — shock, actually — came a few months later, when Dr. Shi, a naturalized American citizen and 18-year resident of the United States, announced that he was leaving for good to pursue science in China. He declined the grant, resigned from Princeton’s faculty and became the dean of life sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing. [Tsinghua is the top university in China.] Full story.

Dr. Shi was the picture of academic success and prestige. He left Princeton at the top of his game. So what motivated him to return to China?

The answer to this question is critical because the trend is only going to grow. We have already seen Chinese entrepreneurs from the diaspora flocking to commercial hubs like Shanghai and Guangzhou. As China builds itself up in various domains, its diaspora is naturally going to find the country much more attractive than it used to be. This will lead to enormous growth in a way that we are only beginning to see. Smart people like to be where there are lots of other smart people; creative people want to be around other creative people.  This clustering effect has an exponential effect on a country’s economy as synergistic connections are formed. Richard Florida writes about this “Creative Class” and why this dynamic is so important for cities.

This is why the US and the UK need to pay attention to this trend. In Dr. Shi’s case, the US didn’t just lose one talented scientist, they lost the potential for a generation of talented scientists in the US, and the US’s key economic competitor is gaining a generation of talented scientists. This is not to mention all of the research ideas, funds, and spinoffs that only someone of Dr. Shi’s stature could have produced. If he wins the Nobel Prize, that will also benefit China.

At Tsinghua, Dr. Shi says he is optimistic. In less than two years, he has recruited about 18 postdoctoral fellows, almost all from the United States. Each has opened an independent laboratory. Within a decade, he said, Tsinghua’s life sciences department will expand fourfold.

If this was only one high profile scientist leaving the US, then it would be unfortunate, but not a worthwhile story. Instead, Dr. Shi’s story needs to be contextualized. His departure is coinciding with a broader emphasis from the Chinese on building up the fields of science and technology.

Chinese scientists are also under more pressure to compete with those abroad, and in the past decade they quadrupled the number of scientific papers they published a year. Their 2007 total was second only to that of the United States. About 5,000 Chinese scientists are engaged in the emerging field of nanotechnology alone, according to a recent book, “China’s Emerging Technological Edge,” by Denis Fred Simon and Cong Cao, two United States-based experts on China.

A 2008 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that within the next decade or two, China would pass the United States in its ability to transform its research and development into products and services that can be marketed to the world.

“As China becomes more proficient at innovation processes linking its burgeoning R.&D. to commercial enterprises, watch out,” the study concluded.

But there is also the individual’s story– what is going on at the micro-level?

…they are returning with a mission: to shake up China’s scientific culture of cronyism and mediocrity, often cited as its biggest impediment to scientific achievement.

They are lured by their patriotism, their desire to serve as catalysts for change and their belief that the Chinese government will back them.

“I felt I owed China something,” said Dr. Shi, 42, who is described by Tsinghua students as caring and intensely driven. “In the United States, everything is more or less set up. Whatever I do here, the impact is probably tenfold, or a hundredfold.”

…Dr. Shi said he believed many Asians confronted a glass ceiling in the United States.

These are definitely factors that Western governments need to pay attention to if they want to keep their Chinese scientific stars in the country. But in Dr. Shi’s case, much of it is driven by patriotism– how do you beat that? I think the answer is that you can’t. At least, not directly. For the most part, the decisive acts are going to be those of the Chinese: they have to make enough changes to their patronage-oriented funding system to keep merit-based scholars like Dr.Shi from going nuts. You only want to hit your head against a brick wall so many times before you decide that enough is enough. If changes to that system don’t happen quickly enough, people like Dr. Shi will simply return to North America.

The long-term answer to this conundrum is to train up native talent– i.e. people who have allegiances to the country. But at the same time you don’t want to affect the merit-based system in any way. In world class institutions, the merit system is the golden goose– you have to guard that. But what we can do is create a larger and more talented pool of potential scientists who can compete with the hard-working Chinese for spots in the most prestigious PhD programs. I think Obama has begun to recognize this, and I only wish that my own government in Canada had this foresight.

This brings me to the broader brain drain debate. This is a subject that has been widely discussed by Canadians for decades.  Certainly, Canadians who live abroad often ask each other “Do you think you will go back?”  In fact, a close friend of mine, Veronica Chau, was recently put forward as the poster child by the Globe and Mail for Canadian brain drain.  And here is where we can really learn something from the Chinese example. The Chinese are tapping into their global talent pool in a much more organized way. They are actively recruiting ex-pats and bringing them home.

… Dr. Shi and Dr. Rao helped draft the [Communist] party’s new program to hire top-flight overseas scientists, entrepreneurs and other experts — the latest incarnation of the government’s campaign to lure its scholars home.

I think this is something that Canada should and could do. The government has already taken some steps in this direction with initiatives like the Recruitment of Policy Leaders Program and Canadian Research Chairs, but it needs to do much much more on this front. Knowledge is going to drive the next century and if we don’t take steps to harness it now, some other country is going to do it for us.

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