Leading UK cancer experts flew to China this week to recruit young research stars and make inroads into an academic sector that many UK scientists find bewildering.
Scientists from the charity Cancer Research UK, including Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, arrived in Beijing this week on a mission to find the country's best young postdoctoral and clinical cancer researchers. They will be offered three-year fellowships in the UK, after which they will return to boost the field in China.
The move comes amid growing concern that the number and quality of UK postdoctoral researchers may be in decline as young people shun the sciences.
Alex Markham, chief executive of CRUK, which spends about £217 million a year on research, said: "All British scientists find it difficult to recruit from China. Each time you advertise you get ten applications, but unless you are one of the few academics with a good understanding of the Chinese system you really don't know where to start. It is too risky, so scientists often just don't bother."
Professor Markham, who led the trip to China, said: "We are primarily interested in the scheme because of the opportunity to build links with China. However, many of my colleagues tell me that the availability and quality of postdocs in the UK may not be what it was and may fall further in future.
"We are keen to make sure we have a supply of the very best international talent," he added.
The charity's new scheme will be relatively small scale at first, awarding ten fellowships in the current round. But Professor Markham said he hoped to expand the project, possibly recruiting Chinese PhD students and developing research collaborations at a higher level.
Applicants have been shortlisted by an international panel that includes Professor Hunt and leading scientists from key scientific institutions in China. The chosen fellows will be funded to carry out cancer research for three years at a CRUK institute in London, Glasgow, Manchester or Cambridge.
Professor Hunt said: "The best universities and institutes across China are excellent. Inevitably, those who reach the top of such a magnificent education system serving a population of 1.3 billion are outstanding.
"Critical to the long-term success of the programme will be the provision of research support for these fellows to return to China."
CRUK warned that the treatment and prevention of cancer would become a priority in China.
Professor Markham said: "With massive economic development, life expectancy in China is rocketing. So what has historically been the least of their worries will become a major issue, not least because of the cynical exploitation by tobacco companies, getting people hooked on their products."
In China, the UK delegation will meet senior officers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the equivalent of the Royal Society in the UK, to discuss future collaboration.