China Expands Research Funding, Luring U.S. Scientists And Students

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In 2003, Jay Siegel was up for a new challenge. Siegel was a tenured professor of chemistry at the University of California, San Diego, but he took a job at the University of Zurich.

"When I first moved, people said, 'Oh, you're crazy to leave San Diego; it's a paradise. Why would you go to Europe? Blah, blah blah,' "recalls Siegel. "And after 10 years people were saying, 'Oh, man, that was the smartest thing you ever did. Zurich is wonderful.' "

Then he told his friends he was moving to China. "And again, people said 'What? Are you crazy?' " Siegel says. But he thinks they'll soon realize he again made the smart choice.

In the past decade or so, China has been expanding its commitment to scientific research, and it shows. Chinese researchers now produce more scientific publications than U.S. scientists do, and the global ratings of Chinese universities are rising.

Five years ago Siegel became dean of the school of pharmaceutical science and technology at Tianjin University. He says the university president recruited him to build an undergraduate program that would attract students from all over — not just China. Siegel says the program is taught entirely in English.

"They get a bachelor's degree that is every bit recognized around the world" says Siegel. "Our graduates go on to do master's and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard, Princeton — at any of the universities around the world."

There's another aspect of getting a pharmaceutical science degree at Tianjin that Siegel expects students from throughout the world to find particularly attractive: The Chinese government plans to offer scholarships to cover the cost for students who enroll.

"They'd walk out debt-free," he says.

Siegel says this is all part of China's effort to attract international scientists.

"We've hired from Brazil; Mexico; the United States," he says. "We have people from Germany; from the U.K. From Korea — from all over."

One of those hires is chemist Mark Olson. Though he had a faculty job at Texas A&M, Olson says he was ready for a new challenge.

"I'm actually born and raised in South Texas — in Corpus Christi," he says. "I come from a Hispanic family." Being in China has been good for his science, Olson says, but there's another reason he's happy he made the move.

"It's good for the kids," he says. He's got three now — and a fourth on the way.

"To show them that the world is round [has been good]," Olson says. "To show them that, 'Hey, on the other side of the planet, this is what life is like.' And it's been very fulfilling."

Another colleague in the chemistry department, Jon Antilla, was at the University of South Florida when he first came to Tianjin University as a visiting faculty member.

"Now I've become full-time here," Antilla says, "giving up my position with tenure in U.S. just to come here."

There were several reasons he made the move. One, he has a Chinese wife who was enthusiastic about the idea.

And, Antilla says, he was attracted by the research climate.

"You really have a lot of freedom here, actually, to pursue your science," Antilla says. "The grant funding is easier to get, and that frees you up to think more."

There's no question that the amount of money available for research in China is going up. The country has made it clear it plans to be a global leader in high-tech manufacturing. China created the Thousand Talents Plan to attract top researchers from around the world. Both Antilla and Olson get support under the plan.

China's ambitions have prompted great concern in the Trump Administration. The worry is that China might be eroding America's technology advantage — not just by support for research, but also by theft of scientific ideas and corporate espionage.

But, for now, those concerns are not preventing scientists who are interested in moving to China from doing so.

"A lot of people who live here are drawn to China for some reason, and I wasn't," says Greg Herczeg, an astronomer at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University "But I thought it would be an interesting thing to do" he says, "to move to China for a few years and experience a different culture. And I've stayed for the past seven years now."

Herczeg took a faculty position at the institute after completing postdoctoral stints at the California Institute of Technology and in Germany.

China has the largest radio telescope in the world, Herczeg notes, and is planning to build several new telescopes.

"I think this is a great place to build a career," he says. "It's given me an interesting platform — let me work with interesting students."

Working in China does have some drawbacks. There are restrictions on the Internet, making it difficult to reach certain websites. And though English is spoken on university campuses, it's not spoken throughout most of the country, posing a problem for many foreign visitors.

What's more, free speech in China isn't the same concept as it is in the United States.

But Herczeg says there's one thing he has not experienced.

"There's no interference politically on the science," he says.

That's a feeling echoed by Tianjin University's Siegel.

"We've had no political restrictions," says Siegel. "I know that people talk about them being out there, and I've heard rumors of things. But, for us personally, I would have to say no, I've not had that experience."

Siegel thinks he knows why he and his American colleagues have been left alone to do their research.

"The Chinese have this interesting phrase that says, 'The foreign monk speaks more easily to God,' " Siegel says. "So when you are a foreigner here, you may get away with things that other people don't get away with. Although, in contrast, they also have the phrase that, 'The foreign dragon can never defeat the local snake.' And I think these are two good pieces of advice wherever you go in the world. That, indeed, when you are a guest there are certain things that will be allowed you that aren't allowed to everyone else."

On the other hand, the influence of guests may be modest when their opinions don't fit with a country's intentions.

The flow of researchers abandoning labs in the United States for academic positions in China is still more trickle than flood. But China is working hard to make itself an attractive destination for top international scientists.

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