In 2007, while visiting his then girlfriend, US astronomer Eric Peng was working at a rented desk at Peking University in Beijing when he was approached by a fellow scientist. “You keep coming back,” the man said. “Are you looking for a job here?” Six months after this casual conversation, Peng was offered a faculty position in Peking University's Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. “I think a lot of people thought it was an obvious thing to do, but I never thought I would actually move here.”

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope will help the search for extraterrestrial life. Credit: VCG/Getty
China has 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, second in the world only to Italy.

China's economy has been growing more slowly in recent years: the gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.9% in 2015, compared with 10.6% in 2010. But foreign researchers say that there has been no cooling of the enthusiasm for enticing talented scientists to work in the country. Overseas and expat scientists are persuaded with promises of generous funding and research opportunities. China's most recent five-year plan, for example, pledged to continue with its drive to increase research and development funding as a proportion of GDP — from 1% in 2002 and 2% in 2014, to 2.5% in 2020.

The government launched its 1000 Talents plan in 2008 to attract scientists, entrepreneurs and finance experts from across the world. Precise figures for how many foreign scientists work in China are hard to come by, but according to anecdotal reports the incentives are working at least in some places. Peng says that half of the postdocs and 20% of the faculty at his institute are from abroad.

The rapid growth of research funding in China makes it an attractive place for researchers looking to set up their own laboratories and projects. For Peng, it meant the opportunity to co-found the Telescope Access Program. Now in its sixth year, the US$13-million project gives Chinese astronomers observation time on optical and infrared telescopes around the world.

I have almost complete freedom to pursue my research goals.

Ross Howie, a physicist who completed his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, UK, three years ago, is enjoying the greater autonomy his move to China in 2015 has allowed him. He is investigating materials synthesis under extreme pressures and temperatures at the Center for High Pressure Science and Technology Advanced Research in Shanghai. “I have been given a platform to build my own laboratory and have almost complete freedom to pursue my research goals,” says Howie.

boxed-textDespite such opportunities, relocating to China can come with challenges. Many grant proposals must be written and defended in Mandarin, although some organizations, such as the National Natural Science Foundation of China, have started to accept grant proposals in English. Scientists complain of excessive paperwork and frequently changing policies. Research institutions can reallocate grant money to other projects that don't have funding. And Internet censorship hinders research.

Jordanian neuroscientist Nashat Abumaria, at Fudan University in Shanghai, has seen such challenges defeat a number of foreign researchers since he arrived in the country in 2007. But he enjoys the drive and ambition of his Chinese colleagues, some of whom he has developed strong friendships with. Abumaria has turned down job offers from elsewhere and plans to stay as long as he can. “I've learned one important thing,” he says. “You can not expect China to change for you. You must change and adapt with China.”

Peng advises those willing to give working in China a try to think like an entrepreneur to make the most out of their experience. “There are definitely failings in the system,” he says. “But there are a lot of advantages too.”

Where to work

The top ten institutions in mainland China, based on research output included in the Nature Index, May 1 2015–April 30 2016, shown as weighted fractional count (WFC), a measure of the relative contribution of an author to an article weighted to correct for imbalances between subjects. Bars are divided according to the proportion that each subject area contributes to the overall score.


Chinese starting salaries are among the lowest in the Asia-Pacific countries profiled, especially for those lower down the pay scale, according to data collected in Nature’s interviews.


China’s average collaboration score (top) — the sum of Nature Index’s fractional count (the relative contribution of authors to an article) for international collaborations divided by the number of countries China collaborates with.boxed-text

Research focus

The search for extraterrestrials gets a boost this year with the completion of China's new Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST). As well as hunting for life on other planets, the world's largest radio telescope, which was finished in July after 22 years of planning and 5 years of construction, will also allow astronomers to study pulsars — the cores of exploding stars — and survey hydrogen in faraway galaxies.

Built at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million) in a valley in the remote, mountainous region of the southern Guizhou province, FAST is made up of 4,450 triangular panels fitted into a giant dish with a surface area of 36 American football fields. Its 500-metre width smashes the previous record, held by the 305-metre wide Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Some 9,000 people have reportedly been relocated to allow FAST to be built.

The enormous size of this instrument, which has been nicknamed 'Sky Eye', makes it more powerful and sensitive than previous radio telescopes and allows it to survey a larger part of the sky. Because it should be capable of picking up weaker radio signals from further away than any previous telescope, FAST will be particularly useful in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

Staff at the construction site of FAST — the world's most powerful radio telescope. Credit: Ou Dongqu/Xinhua/Eyevine

FAST forms part of China's plan to build up its space programme. Having put its first astronaut in space in 2003 and having launched its first unmanned lunar expedition in 2013, the country is planning to have an operational space station by around 2020 and to put a person on the Moon by 2030.

Entry requirements

  • Employers must apply for work permits on behalf of employees. This includes presenting CVs, university transcripts and certificates, and making the case that no Chinese national can fulfil the job requirements.

  • Once a work permit has been granted, employees must apply for a single-entry work visa called a Z visa.

  • On arriving in China, the employee and their employer have one month to apply for a residence visa. The visa can take up to three months to process and is valid for one year, after which it must be renewed annually.

  • The bureaucratic hurdles associated with visas and work permits can be frustrating; some have reported having to fly back to their home country to wait for documents.

Opportunities & contacts

  • The 1000 Talent Plan of Foreign Experts offers attractive salary and research funding packages to those willing to work in China for three years.

  • The 1000 Talent Plan for Young Professionals seeks to attract scientists aged under 40 who are seen as future leaders in their fields.

  • The President's International Fellowship Initiative provides Chinese Academy of Sciences funding to PhD students and postdocs.

  • The National Natural Science Foundation offers grants to both foreign and returning Chinese scientists seeking to collaborate with Chinese scientists.