A sure sign of a higher education sector that is still in its developmental stage is a brain drain of young researchers to Western universities.
For many years, this has been China’s experience, even as it spends huge amounts of money on its goal of becoming a “powerhouse of higher education” by 2050. But now, efforts to stem the loss of talented academics are paying off, according to the president of China’s major science funding agency.
“Just 10 years ago, the flow of talent was at about seven Chinese students leaving for every one that came back. Now it’s six [students] returning in every seven,” said Wei Yang, president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China. “The brain drain is almost over.”
Professor Yang said that the improvement was partly down to an increase in the number of scientists coming from abroad to work in China, but was also driven by the growth of China’s youth population, and improvements in domestic universities.
“We get more and more PhD students coming up every year – about 70,000 – so there’s a big talent pool,” he said.
China’s investment in higher education shows no sign of abating as it looks to build a modern knowledge economy. Mainland China is now the joint sixth most-represented nation in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, with Peking and Tsinghua universities in the top 30. The country’s latest excellence initiative, “Double First Class”, looks to achieve “world-class” status for 42 universities by the middle of the century.
China’s strategy focuses heavily on science and engineering subjects, and the NSFC’s budget has increased from 18 million yuan (£2 million) at its founding in 1986, to 28.6 billion yuan last year.
Professor Yang said that his funding agency was now looking to recruit from abroad just to keep on top of the growing burden of administering these funds.
“We have only 230 staff for the whole of the NSFC and every year we have to handle 200,000 grant applications – that’s an average 1,000 applications each,” he said. It’s important to consider how to keep improving on quality when you have this heavy workload.”
With a career spanning 30 years, Professor Yang, an internationally acclaimed engineer and materials science researcher, said that he had nonetheless come across several “surprises” during his five years as leader of the funding body.
“The first is that over the past five years, the people who get grants are so much younger than before,” he said.
While the agency issues a certain number of special grants for young people, the average age of those awarded general application grants has fallen by one year, every year. “Now, the peak of this age distribution is around 35 years old – this is quite a surprise. More and more young people are able to be principal investigators for research projects that are open to all age groups.”
The second surprise, he continued, was the “increase in international collaboration with all countries”.
Each year, the NSFC earmarks 1.1 billion yuan for international cooperation and research exchange programmes – an eightfold increase on 10 years ago, helping to bring China into line with US, European and south-east Asian competitors. As a result, China now ranks second in the world for output of internationally collaborated papers.
This is, of course, a “positive change”, said Professor Yang, “but what is intriguing is that the collaboration tends to be administered between the scientists themselves”. While almost half of all China’s jointly authored publications are with US institutions, China’s formal involvement with US collaborators is “very restricted”, he said.
“We do not have so many official programmes with the US,” he explained. “But we have many Chinese students who got their PhDs in the US, they then form partnerships with their colleagues there. They want to collaborate with the top scientists of other countries, [and] get published in prestigious journals.”
The difference once again comes down to funding, he explained. Until recently, research grants for Chinese investigators could not often match those of their international collaborators. Now, however, individual Chinese grant recipients can link with US or European researchers to bring “almost equal” funds to a joint project. “The budget is going through the roof,” he added.
Continuing to secure such wealth is Professor Yang’s personal priority in order to help maintain the impressive growth of Chinese research. “International collaboration raises the academic impact of China,” he concluded, “and the upgrading of that dynamic is powered by the new generation.”