China's best young scientists are working abroad. The country is trying to change that — and when it succeeds, the results will be startling.
The postdoctoral researcher is the workhorse of laboratories around the world, and principal investigators in countries ranging from the United States to Singapore have come to depend for their postdocs on well educated and hard-working researchers from China. Yet, ask senior scientists in China, especially bioscientists with experience of working overseas, and they'll say they want and need more postdocs back home — assuming that they have any at all.
Almost all the best young Chinese scientists with new PhDs choose to spend the formative period of their training for an independent career abroad. And those Chinese postdocs who do choose to work in China often desert academia for more lucrative careers in biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry or contract research. The upshot is that, to get any work done, Chinese academic scientists have to keep training new groups of graduate students to fill the gap.
No doubt this is part of the reason that researchers in China, despite their reputation for hard work and putting in long hours, and despite the country's increasing investment in science, look extremely unproductive by international standards. One Chinese scientist described it as the ambitious nation shooting itself in the foot, twice — spending time and resources to train students and then sending them abroad to work for a competitor.
Yet the current system leaves talented people little choice but to leave. In particular, established laboratories overseas have more experience and success in producing good publications, which help to secure jobs for their postdocs. These laboratories are often better equipped than in China, and a postdoc job in the United States or Europe pays as well as or better than a more senior principal-investigator position in China.
And even while senior staff at Chinese universities and institutes despair of finding good-quality postdocs, they know that when a full-time post comes up, it will probably go to someone who has spent time abroad. A mediocre CV that includes stints in the United States or another foreign country, time and again trumps solid publications based on work done locally (see Nature 457, 522; 2009). The lesson is clear — if you want to make it in China, go and train somewhere else.
But the tide may be turning. The Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai (see page 22) together with institutions in Beijing such as the National Institute of Biological Sciences, the Institute of Biophysics, Tsinghua University and Peking University, are starting to form a critical mass — a domestic ring of excellence that offers the high-quality start to an independent career that students have up to now been forced to seek elsewhere.
Over the next few years, the effect could be hugely significant. With the US economy failing and some top institutes in China already considering ways to increase postdocs' salaries, benefits could start to converge. New facilities in China are as good as, or better than, in the West, and research in China offers other attractions, including easier access to primates. Research pastures at home will start to look as green as those abroad.
New recruits to the Chinese army of PhDs would do well to consider their country's own facilities as career launchpads. And Chinese institutions can do their part by looking seriously at domestically bred talent when recruiting, rather than running after returnees. Once that mentality starts to change, and Chinese laboratories fill up with four or five postdocs each, those productivity figures will shift rapidly.