Scientist using microscope in lab.

China encourages its scientists to study abroad and then return home.Credit: Sigrid Gombert/Cultura/SPL

Does working in a foreign country enhance the careers of Chinese scientists? For years, China has been encouraging scientists to study abroad and then bring their expertise home. But contrary to the common perception that such experience furthers careers, a study finds that returnees take longer than their peers who remained in China to obtain one of the country’s highest scientific honours.

Of the approximately 1,500 Chinese nationals awarded a Changjiang Scholarship in the sciences between 1999 and 2015, those who received a PhD at a foreign university had held their doctorate for 25% longer — about 2.3 years — than those recipients who did not earn a PhD overseas when they won the scholarship, reports a study led by Tang Li, a public policy researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai, China.

The prestigious Changjiang Scholarship is awarded by the Chinese Ministry of Education. It comes with a yearly stipend of 200,000 yuan (US$29,000), but most importantly, the award is widely seen as more important than salary or even individual professorships in terms of conferring respect among peers and indicating scientific achievement.

International mobility has been shown to boost scientists’ skills and network and, once academics return to their homelands, increase the country’s international expertise and exposure to global research practices. Institutions need to better recognise the benefits of international training and reward it, says Tang.

The results of her study, published in Science and Public Policy last year1, suggest that the benefits of overseas training might not be well recognized, she says.

The researchers also report that local connections help academics obtain the honour faster, and say that this could explain why returnees are at a disadvantage, despite the advantages that studying abroad is thought to confer.

Send out, attract back

China actively encourages its scientists to study abroad and then return home. Over the past decade, numerous national recruitment programmes have attracted Chinese-born academics at foreign institutions back to China, often with promises of higher salaries and research funding. The best known, the Thousand Talents Plan, has come under scrutiny in the United States in the past year for being a threat to American research and intellectual property. Academics returning from top international universities are promised relocation packages of up to 1 million yuan (US$144,000), as well as top salaries and millions in research grants.

To learn more about the impact of working abroad, Tang and her colleague Li Feng at Hohai University in Nanjing, China, decided to review the career trajectories of 1,447 Changjiang Scholars. About one-third held PhDs from overseas universities, and about half had short-term overseas experience.

The average time between graduating from a PhD and becoming a Changjiang Scholar is 10.3 years, Tang and Feng report. But they found it took researchers with any type of overseas experience longer to receive the honour than those with no international experience. Even Chinese scholars who left the country only temporarily to be visiting scholar at an international institution for a year waited 12% longer (about a year) for the title than their peers who remained in China.

The researchers controlled for factors that could influence the timing of the award, such as gender, research field, where academics trained overseas and the status of the academic’s university when they received the award. Leading universities are likely to have greater resources for academics to achieve success, says Tang. The study did not look at why returnees decided to come back to China, or whether they were recruited by a national programme such as the Thousand Talents Plan.

In the second part of the study, the researchers examined the Changjiang Scholars’ networks. They found that the stronger the academic’s local connections — measured as having obtained a bachelor's degree and PhD at the same institution they work in — the faster they obtained the title. Scholars working at their alma mater received the honour, on average, about 2 to 8 months faster than those working at a different university.

Local connections

Tang suggests that because award recipients are nominated by their university, researchers who have spent their academic career in China might be more likely to be nominated — and more familiar to the reviewers — than academics who have been out of China for years. Selection is based on teaching, research, innovation and development, teamwork and leadership, and other criteria, and panels of experts chosen by the Ministry of Education select the winners.

Dong Jielin, a guest researcher in science policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says that the results support the belief among some that China has an unhealthy academic environment that rewards personal connections over skills and experience. “Everyone knows that to obtain a national academic honour such as Chinese Academy of Sciences member or CJS [Changjiang Scholar], the applicant and their hiring institution need to [make] many lobbying efforts,” Dong says. Efforts to reform this culture are needed, she says.

But Cao Cong, a science policy researcher at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, has another theory. He suggests that in the past, some Changjiang scholars with overseas training might have been slower to obtain the award because they were not as academically competitive as the best locally trained scientists. Before schemes such as the Thousand Talents Program, many overseas-trained PhD graduates preferred to apply for foreign faculty positions, and so academics who returned to China might have done so because they couldn’t secure an overseas position, he says. Cao suggests that a future study should examine the career trajectory of overseas-trained scientists who have returned more recently to see whether the conclusion that returnees were promoted more slowly still holds.

Tang says she wants to investigate the careers of Thousand Talents participants, but that it’s now difficult to find them since China stopped publishing their names online in the wake of US scrutiny of the programme.