Low-angle view of two female laboratory technicians wearing face coverings and white lab coats

The Thousand Talents Plan aims to make China a global leader in science and technology.Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty

Young Chinese scientists who got their PhDs overseas and returned to China as part of a state-run talent drive published more papers after their return than did their peers who stayed abroad. The productivity bump can be explained by returnees’ access to greater funding and an abundant research workforce, according to the authors of an analysis published in Science1. The findings come as geopolitical competition between the United States and China mounts.

In 2008, China began enticing expatriate scientists and foreign researchers to relocate to China through its Thousand Talents Plan, which aims to make the nation a global leader in science and technology.

Despite the programme’s prestige, government agencies in the United States and elsewhere have regarded it with suspicion, because of its potential to increase the flow of technical know-how to China. In 2018, the administration of former US president Donald Trump launched the China Initiative, to protect US laboratories and businesses from espionage. And the same year, the Chinese government stopped publicly naming Thousand Talents Plan recipients because of the negative career impact that the association might have.

The latest study focuses on a branch of the programme — the Young Thousand Talents (YTT) Plan — designed to attract early-career researchers to Chinese research posts. The programme offers researchers generous research packages, including an internationally competitive salary and start-up funds: between 2011 and 2017, when records were still publicly available, it offered grants to more than 3,000 researchers.

Researcher calibre

To gauge the programme’s success, the authors examined some 300 young Chinese researchers who had got their PhDs abroad, then received YTT grants between 2012 and 2014 and returned to academic positions in China.

They found that the grant recipients ranked in the top 15% for publication output in the five years before returning to China, when benchmarked against all early-career scientists in the United States. This suggests that the YTT programme was succeeding at attracting high-calibre scientists, the researchers conclude.

But they also found that scientists who rejected offers to participate in the programme, and stayed abroad, ranked even higher — in the top 10% for research productivity in the five years before they might have returned. These researchers were also more likely to have published as a last author on papers — which usually denotes seniority — in leading journals. Public-policy researcher Kathleen Vogel at Arizona State University in Tempe thinks that the main reason for these findings is that it’s hard to persuade top-notch researchers to leave elite institutions, where they already have access to funding and resources.

Productivity boost

During a period of up to seven years after their return to China, YTT scholars experienced a rise in productivity compared with matched researchers who stayed in the United States. Returnees published 27% more papers — equating to approximately one more paper per year on average — including in journals ranked in the top 10% for a field, says co-author Yanbo Wang at the University of Hong Kong.

Returnees were also more likely to be last authors than were those who stayed, suggesting that YTT scholars are better able to forge independent research careers as heads of their own research teams, Wang says.

Access to funding and research staff seems to be the main driver of the productivity gains: once funding and size of research team are taken into account, the effect on publication output disappears. “Research grants really matter a lot,” Wang adds.

The effects were most pronounced in fields such as biology, medicine and chemistry, which often require expensive equipment and large numbers of people to conduct research. The study authors write that the YTT programme was beneficial to “young expatriates who had the capability but not the funding to run their own labs for independent research”. Policymakers in the United States and the European Union need to address the shortage of funding for early-career researchers in their countries so that scientists there can kick-start independent careers, too, Wang says.

Lili Yang, a higher-education policy researcher at the University of Hong Kong who has also measured productivity in YTT scholars, says that these findings are “super interesting” and reveal a nuanced picture of the roles held by returning scientists.

Mounting tensions

The study comes as friction between the United States and China ratchets up — and this is also influencing researchers’ decisions about where to work, Yang says. “China is witnessing a higher proportion of returnees because of the tensions, which in the short term is good for the development of Chinese research,” she says.

The study makes an important contribution, says geographer Qingfang Wang at the University of California, Riverside, who researches why scientists — including YTT recipients — migrate. But she notes, on the basis of her investigations, that researchers will apply for YTT funding only once they have decided to relocate to China, so it is unclear how effective the programme is at enticing researchers to the country.

And she says that focusing on publication output as a measure of the programme’s value overlooks other markers of scientific success, such as the ability to cultivate creative thinking, innovation and interdisciplinary research, which are harder to measure. The aim is not to produce “publication machines”, she adds. In 2020, China’s ministries of science and technology and education issued guidelines to reduce institutions’ reliance on publication as a way of evaluating research performance.

Yang is interested in how the YTT recipients develop their careers — for example, whether they move into leadership roles in which they can influence research culture. But the lack of transparency since 2018 around who receives YTT grants will make it harder to carry out research on later cohorts of the programme — including those who received grants during the height of the China Initiative and the turbulent pandemic era. “It is a pity,” she says.