For China, a reverse brain drain in science?

Beijing woos some of its best expatriate scientists. US should act, some say.

Photo illustration: Newscom

China has hung a “Help Wanted” sign for scientists and engineers, dangling big-bucks salaries and sparkling new labs to lure expatriates back from the United States.

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.

Several factors are driving the purported exodus – not least of which are prospects back home. India and China have posted electrifying economic growth rates in the past decade. Growth has slowed with the current global economic crisis, but still remains at enviable levels.

Established professionals returning home are drawn by what they see as better career opportunities, a better quality of life, and the chance  of being closer to family, according to a recently published survey by Mr. Wadhwa and his colleagues from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One significant draw is the prospect of bringing up children in what are seen as better school systems back home, says David Heenan, a visiting professor at Georgetown University. Many parents “see a dumbing down of public education in the US, along with tattoos and pants below the hips,” he says.

When they leave, they often take their kids with them – kids who are brighter than their parents, Mr. Heenan says. He notes that over the past 10 years, 60 to 65 percent of the top high school science research awards – what he dubs “junior Nobel prizes” – were children of first-generation immigrants or foreigners carrying H-1B worker visas.

The impulse to return home is to be expected as economies overseas evolve. But some experts say they are concerned that with its current visa policies, the US is hurting itself. One key need, Wadhwa says, is to boost the number of H-1B visas made available and cut processing times.

For all the angst, the Oak Ridge Institute’s Finn points out that as long as the sheer number of foreign students earning advanced degrees here continues to increase at a brisk pace, the US can still benefit from their intellectual horsepower.

And the US is still top of the heap in scientific clout, says James Hosek, who tracks global science and engineering trends at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. US scientists still publish twice as many of the most influential research papers as their European counterparts, and four times as many as a group of countries he calls the Asian 10, which includes China and India.

“So, they’re not breathing down our necks,” he says.

But even he cautions that with science investment accelerating overseas, the US cannot take its leadership for granted.

Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar contributed to this report.   

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