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Why money and prestige aren’t enough to lure foreign scientists to China

When Italian physicist Giulio Chiribella came across a faculty job opening in a newsletter in 2011, he had no idea that Tsinghua University, a school he had hardly heard of, would be where he took his next step into the magical world of quantum mechanics.

Then a senior postdoctoral fellow at a Canadian institute, Chiribella was struggling to find a tenured position in Europe or North America. But when he arrived in Beijing for the job interview, Tsinghua surprised him with a long list of research projects and a class of curious undergraduates longing for his lectures on quantum information theory.

“I was struck by the enthusiasm and the desire to grow,” Chiribella told the South China Morning Post. “It was a feeling that people value you and need you.”

Eager to transform the world’s factory into a hi-tech economy, China is targeting not only returning Chinese but also foreigners to boost its scientific capabilities.

But despite the money and prestige being offered by Beijing, the journey to the East has yet to become a mainstream choice for budding scientists around the world.

Although the few pioneers praise the resources and support they have found in China, cultural barriers and a lack of confidence in the country’s academic system are keeping most young scholars away.

Chiribella joined Tsinghua as an associate professor in 2012 through the state-sponsored Thousand Talents programme, which offered a 2 million yuan research grant, a 500,000 yuan personal reward and medical and housing benefits.

With the support, Chiribella’s team at Tsinghua discovered the phenomenon of “quantum super-replication”, contributing to the theoretical foundations of the application of quantum technologies.

During his time in the capital he met the woman who would become his wife, a computer scientist from Zhejiang province, and got to attend a National Day concert of Chinese music in the Great Hall of the People in 2014 specially arranged for imported talent.

However, he decided to leave for the University of Hong Kong in 2015 after fulfilling the Thousand Talents’ requirement of working full-time on the mainland for three years.

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The 36-year-old had doubts whether China’s evolving tenure system, which was introduced only about a decade ago, would offer him a stable academic career path.

“There is no previous experience on how this works, what are the criteria and what are the guarantees that you can get,” Chiribella said. “It was not clear to me what was the next stage.”

His inability to learn Chinese was another irritant. Under great pressure to deliver scientific breakthroughs, he had to abandon plans to explore the local language, customs and attractions.

The busy scientist called his failure to blend in with Chinese society “the Great Wall effect” – he was so occupied with research work that he never found the time to visit the Great Wall during his three-year stay.

He ended up depending on his wife for even simple daily chores such as getting groceries or paying electricity bills, which eventually led to the decision to move to a city where English was more widely spoken.

“I needed to reclaim my independence in everyday life,” Chiribella said. “It was not a dignified way to live.”

Chiribella would have been someone Beijing wanted to stay. The Thousand Talents programme has convinced thousands of Chinese educated abroad to return home, but the government thinks it needs more to close the gap with established science powers.

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A scheme under the programme was introduced in 2011 with the goal of recruiting 500 to 1,000 top-notch non-Chinese experts in 10 years, promising each recruit a research grant of 3 million to 5 million yuan and a 1 million yuan personal reward.

Another scheme targeting academics under the age of 40 also covers foreigners, offering each of them 1 million to 3 million yuan in start-up funding and a 500,000 yuan personal reward.

Such incentives are often topped up with additional bonuses and subsidies from local governments and research institutions.

But the heavy investment has led to only moderate progress.

About 300 top-level foreigners had been recruited by 2015, according to official data. And in the young talent scheme, most places were still being filled by mainlanders returning to China.

Only two Western names appeared on the Thousand Talents list of 183 young recruits in 2013, while the list of 558 recruits this year contained 546 Chinese names, 11 Western names and one Japanese one.

Zach Smith, an American scientist specialising in biomedical optics, said the competition for jobs and funding in the United States was “outrageous”, but not many researchers were aware of the opportunities in China.

Smith joined the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) last year with his Chinese-born wife, also a scientist, who works in the same field.

It would have been difficult for them to find jobs at the same institution in the US, Smith said, but the research-oriented university in Hefei, Anhui province, was more than willing to have them work together in the laboratory, developing next-generation tools for disease diagnosis.

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The 3 million yuan start-up funding Smith received from the Thousand Talents programme was double the best offer he received in the US.

“I think some people in the Europe or US still have this mindset that the good things that are coming out of China may be more the exception than the rule,” he said. “In my opinion, at least at USTC, it is much more the rule than the exception.”

Fear of culture shock also made some young researchers in the West hesitant about moving to China, said Martin Stynes, an Irish mathematician working at the state-run Beijing Computational Science Research Centre.

Stynes said China’s achievements in mathematics was recognised globally, but he found it difficult to attract young mathematicians from Europe to join his team in Beijing.

“They felt coming to China was somehow taking a big risk,” Stynes said. “Maybe I don’t speak the language, maybe I won’t like the food, maybe I won’t like the people, or the research institutes are not well-known in Europe – because it’s China.

“They worry that China is so different from Europe that if they come for two years they will not be happy. They don’t know the culture and they are scared.”

The Chinese government now realises it takes more than funding to attract overseas talent and is exploring ways to address more subtle concerns. One idea is to have foreigners run research institutes and science schools, hoping they would help attract in other top researchers by creating foreigner-friendly environments.

Californian chemist Jay Siegel, who has worked in the US, France and Switzerland, was one of the first non-Chinese to take charge of a science faculty on the mainland.

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After becoming the dean of the school of pharmaceutical science and technology at Tianjin University in 2013, Siegel made English the official language for teaching and conducting research.

With the language barrier removed, he brought in about 30 full-time foreign scholars and several guest professors, including 2016 Nobel chemistry laureate Fraser Stoddart, who has set up a laboratory and special funding to support molecular synthesis research in Tianjin.

Siegel’s success was soon noticed by the central government. Under a trial scheme launched in 2014, Beijing aims to establish about 20 science or engineering schools that are run by foreign scholars in five years, with Siegel’s school one of the models, according to the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.

Several other faculties included in the scheme, including a medical science school in Zhengzhou, Henan province, and a materials science school in Wuhan, Hubei province, have also hired non-Chinese deans.

Siegel said the foreigner-led administrations would play an essential role in boosting young scholars’ confidence in pursuing an academic career in China.

“In chemistry, we have the phrase ‘like dissolves like’,” he said. “If you can get these pioneers to come not just as members, but leaders, then they set a beacon for the others.

“People will say ‘If Jay Siegel can do that, I can do that.’”

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But before everything clicks, pioneering foreign academics have to cope with some day-to-day challenges. Their success in resolving them could prove key to determining whether they settle down on the mainland.

Compared to their native countries, China has a complicated bureaucracy with fast-changing rules, as well as hierarchical interpersonal relationships, Western scientists say. And foreign deans have to learn to work with the Communist Party committees set up at every Chinese school and institute.

Alberto Macho, a biologist at the Shanghai Centre for Plant Stress Biology run by the China Academy of Sciences, said purchases of laboratory chemicals and equipment from overseas were often delayed because of tedious bureaucratic procedures.

While he enjoys the vibrant atmosphere of Shanghai, the 35-year-old Spaniard said he had needed to adapt to its massive crowds, including some “extremely selfish individuals”.

Smith said he was still figuring out where to sit at Chinese banquets and how to make Western dishes with ingredients he could find in Hefei.

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Chiribella remembers having stomach problems during his first trip to Beijing. At the hospital, he saw some “dirty samples” thrown on the floor.

“Then my brain went very fast, imagining myself dying in this hospital,” he said.

When he started working in Beijing, he realised that Chinese hospitals might look terrifying but were “actually quite professional”.

But there was one thing he could not countenance – having his children exposed to the Chinese capital’s notorious smog.

He and his wife put parenting plans on hold until they moved to Hong Kong last year. Their son was born at Queen Mary Hospital in May.