OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16
Bringing the Best and Brightest Back Home
John Stanmeyer for TIME.
New facilities are giving China and its scientists a chance to work on cutting-edge research.
With tax breaks and top-notch equipment, China tries to tempt its Western-educated young scientists back to the motherland
By HANNAH BEECH
The future is hard to spot in the bare, sawdust-strewn lobby of the Beijing Huada Human Genome Research Center. There's enough dust swirling around the complex to make even the most nonchalant lab technician nervous. So many roaches scurry underfoot that costly dna-sequencing machines are in danger of being clogged with bug bits.
Yet despite the unprepossessing setting, this building on the outskirts of the Chinese capital houses some of the world's most innovative gene researchand a vision of China's scientific future. Already the institute's young scientiststhe average age is just 22have mapped a good chunk of chromosome 3 and are on track to finish their portion of the Human Genome Project two years ahead of schedule. China's top dna decoders now clamor to work at the prestigious facility.
But just as remarkable as their work is where these scientists are coming fromback from overseas, where China's best brains have usually fled. The reason? The opportunity to do cutting-edge work at a young age, plus a good dose of old-fashioned patriotism. "No matter how talented we are, there's a feeling that being Chinese limits our success in America," says Hu Songnian, 31, who studied genetics at the University of Washington. "I would rather work in China, where I can help my country and have my work be appreciated."
Until recently, that kind of appreciation was in short supply on the mainland, where decrepit labs have had a hard time attracting good researchers. There are plenty of Chinese scientiststhe nation trains more than any other countryjust not in Beijing, or Shanghai. Tens of thousands work in the U.S. and Europe, where they enjoy state-of-the art equipment and fat salaries. When Huada began looking for qualified researchers more than a year ago, it attracted only two dozen scientistshardly enough to fill its labs. "We had to figure out some way to get our scientists back home," says Zhang Meng, a recruitment officer who helped the institute in its efforts to bring overseas researchers back to China. "Otherwise all that talent gets used by other countries."
The tide is turning. The market reforms that kick-started the nation's economy have also worked as a magnet to attract its best talents back home. In the mid-1990s, state ministries began offering tax incentives and start-up loans to overseas students willing to return. First came newly minted M.B.A.s, who, like many foreign entrepreneurs, saw a chance to cash in on China's 1.3 billion consumers. Then came the young Internet gurus, who leapt at the opportunity to wire the Middle Kingdom.
Today, the return flights from the West are filled with recently graduated scientists, and many of them are heading for one of 26 so-called pioneering parksstate-supported incubators for high-tech ventures, designed specifically for returnees. First set up in 1996 by a group of enterprising, overseas-educated students in the eastern town of Suzhou, the parks now dot the suburbs of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. To date, more than 1,000 enterprises run by returnees have set up shop in them.
After its lackluster start, the Western-educated founders of Huada decided to relocate to one such park, set in the Konggang industrial development zone near Beijing's airport. They were rewarded with tax incentives, credit guarantees, low rent and favorable import regulations that helped them pour money into expensive equipment and salaries significantly higher than what other domestic enterprises offer.
In just one year, the institute has grown from 30 researchers to more than 200 (the number is expected to top 300 by year's end). It is now the sixth-largest partner in the Human Genome Project, ranked alongside prestigious institutes like Britain's Sanger Center and Japan's RIKEN genomic sciences center. Says Zhang, "The opportunity to work at such a fast-growing institute is very attractive for new PhDs."
Although they aren't earning anywhere near what they might make in the U.S., the institute's young scientists are given the opportunity to conduct the kind of high-level research normally reserved for senior scientists in the West. "The work I'm doing is what someone twice my age would be allowed to do in America," says Hu, who manages one of the institute's bio-agricultural projects. "It's an incredible opportunity to do research I'm personally interested in at a young age." Many scientists say they are also excited by the chance to decode the human genome to fit Chinese characteristics. Western genomics labs tend to focus on how to combat diseases like diabetes or heart attacks. But China's population is more susceptible to other life-threatening illnesses like stomach cancer. "This is a chance for Chinese to solve problems specific to our citizens," says Yuan Longping, who is working on a super-hybrid rice genome plan that could benefit millions of Chinese peasants.
The returnees have more to offer than their scientific knowledge, too. China's top universities teach raw scientific material as adeptly as their Western counterparts. But what they don't do, say overseas-educated Chinese, is school students in the people skills needed to succeed in a close laboratory environment. "The most valuable thing I learned abroad was how to work with other researchers," says Zhang Li, who studied biochemistry at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. "In China, scientists are taught only to care about their own success, so it's very difficult to get them to work on a project together." The new researchers have taught their cooperative lab skills to locally trained technicians, who say that as a result Huada is significantly more efficient than other mainland science centers.
Of course, not all Chinese are willing to come home. Last year more than 50,000 Chinese went to the U.S. to study; less than half that number are expected to return. Project manager Hu concedes that if he had a family, he might hesitate to settle them in his spartan living quarters. "But I'm young," says Hu. "I'm able to take chances and experiment with things that older people might not be willing to do." Fortunately for the next generation of scientists, China may finally be ready to do that as well.
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