For China, a reverse brain drain in science?
Beijing woos some of its best expatriate scientists. US should act, some say.
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Not long ago, the government aimed such efforts at snagging freshly minted PhDs or entry-level teachers and researchers at US universities. Now they’re going after full professors – folks with a research track record and a proven ability to run a lab. And they’re offering relocation allowances of $146,000 plus salaries reportedly as high as $250,000 a year to do it.
China’s effort is the latest wrinkle in what some experts see as a decade-long loss for the US of foreign nationals – mainly from Asia – who are taking their strong, US-honed science and technology skills and heading home.
The concern: At a time when science and technology are becoming ever more fundamental to economic progress, the US is losing many of its best and brightest. “The US government is asleep at the wheel here,” says Vivek Wadhwa, an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering and a senior research associate at Harvard Law School.
And it’s not clear the US is able to fill the vacuum – at least for now – as these people leave. American students seem to prefer careers in business, law, or medicine rather than in science, math, or engineering.
Reliable statistics on the number of experienced foreign scientists and engineers going back home are scant. But a look at changes in the proportion of foreign students staying back in the US after earning their PhDs is revealing. The percentage of those who were still in the US two years after receiving their doctorates slipped from 71 percent between 2001 and 2003 to 66 percent in 2005, according to a study by Michael Finn at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The larger trends indicate that, “[W]hile foreign doctorate recipients stayed in increasing numbers during the 1980s and 1990s, this no longer seems to be the case,” Mr. Finn noted.
Data on more-experienced scientists and engineers remain anecdotal. A physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory says that some of his physicist friends are moving back, including a senior professor at a major US university who’d been in the US some 20 years. In the short term, if China can draw 1,000 ethnic Chinese professors from the US, “that’s a big number,” notes the physicist, who says he’s received calls from the Chinese government and asked not to be named.