China’s most prominent talent-recruitment program is still failing to lure “top” global scientists back to the country, a study has found.
Established in 2010 as a key pillar of Beijing’s Thousand Talents Program, the Young Thousand Talents (YTT) initiative seeks to recruit science and technology experts from abroad, especially among Chinese expatriates.
In the West, the initiative has come under scrutiny from lawmakers, who fear espionage and intellectual property theft amid rising geopolitical tensions. But research suggests that YTT is not yet attracting the cream of the crop.
“Although designed to improve China’s prospect of becoming a global STEM leader, the program’s effectiveness in attracting top talents and nurturing their productivity is unclear,” write academics in the journal Science.
Yanbo Wang, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s business school, and Dongbo Shi, an assistant professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, examined researchers’ motives for turning down the award, which includes a one-off, tax-exempt income subsidy of 500,000 yuan ($74,000) and start-up grants of ¥1 million ($148,000) to ¥3 million.
Wang and his colleague surveyed more than 400 researchers who were approached for the program’s first four cohorts starting in 2011. They included 73 scientists who rejected the YTT offers and remained overseas and 339 who accepted spots in China via the program and spent at least five years doing research there.
While the program attracted high-caliber talent, it failed to draw the star-power researchers China hopes to entice, the researchers found.
At the time they received the offer, YTT “rejectors” were more productive relative to the “acceptors,” with an average of 2.93 publications per year versus 2.39 per year among the YTT participants. They were also more likely to have overseas faculty appointments, with 89 percent of rejectors holding posts versus 14 percent of acceptors.
Those who turned down YTT offers had larger annual research grants abroad—with an average of 25,300 pounds ($30,685) compared with their peers’ £3,700 ($4,488).
“For the very best researchers who have opportunities to receive funding and build up their own research programs overseas, the YTT program was much less attractive than [it was] to researchers who had the capability but not the funding to pursue independent research overseas,” Wang told Times Higher Education.
The findings also suggest that, once they returned home, some YTT scientists struggled to “reintegrate into China’s academia,” causing their research output to slow down.
Once funding and team size were controlled for, YTT scientists “barely outperformed [overseas counterparts] in terms of publications,” according to the study.
But Wang did not believe that the finding boded ill for the program.
“Instead, this finding suggests that the effectiveness of the YTT program reflects both the merits [and] strength of China’s talent-recruitment initiations as well as the weakness [and] structural problems in the current scientific funding schemes in the U.S. and the E.U.,” he said.
He noted that it has become increasingly challenging for early-career researchers in Western nations to receive enough funding for a “healthy start” to their career, with “no sign” that the situation will improve anytime soon—a factor that explains why the YTT program has been particularly attractive to young scholars who lack the resources to pursue independent research overseas.
In their paper, the researchers warn that greater success of recruitment programs could cause concerns for U.S. institutions in some STEM fields.
“The success of talent programs in countries such as China, and possibly elsewhere, would offer science-oriented international students a viable alternative to U.S. universities and institutions. If this trend persists, the biomedical labs in the U.S. could be facing a shrinking pool of foreign students,” they write.
Still, Wang thought it was unlikely that, in the near future at least, YTT would radically change China’s research landscape.
“As there are a very large number of Chinese expatriate scientists, some of the superstars are going to return. However, I do not expect scientists of such caliber to return in a large quantity anytime soon.”
Luring top talent back to China will require deeper structural change, he said. “While higher funding may make the program more attractive to them, most likely it would require broad improvement of China’s academic research environment for them to return.”