Overseas Chinese with ‘diaspora advantage’ achieve major success

US-China research collaborations will continue despite politics, Harvard economist says 

May 29, 2020
Motorboat athletes dressed as superman and spiderman compete on Tongsheng Lake on July 14, 2017 in Changsha, Hunan Province of China
Source: Getty

More attention should be paid to the “substantial and growing proportion” of work by Chinese diaspora scientists and engineers, say authors of a working paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

Despite the success of researchers who were born in China but conduct their research overseas, diaspora scientists have “received little attention in China’s ‘great leap forward’ in science”, according to the paper.

Diaspora researchers have “contributed to global science through the exceptional quantity and quality of their scientific work and through distinctive connections to China-based researchers and research”, write Qingnan Xie of the Nanjing University of Science and Technology and Richard Freeman, Herbert Ascherman chair in economics at Harvard University and director of the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the NBER.

While some countries see emigration as brain drain, or a loss of native-born talent, China fits in more with the “ethnic network view”, which views emigration as a “positive channel of communication and knowledge”.

Beginning in the early 1980s, China encouraged scholarly exchanges with the West. By the 2010s, a “huge number” of Chinese students had moved to developed nations as postgraduate students or postdoctoral researchers – and many stayed. According to US data, 85 per cent of Chinese students who earned US PhDs in 2003-04 were still working in the US a decade later.

The NBER paper found that Chinese diaspora researchers in STEM achieved exceptional numbers of citations and publications in journals with high Scopus CiteScores. Slightly more than 30 per cent of papers in Nature and Science had at least one Chinese diaspora author. Overall, “diaspora papers” gained about twice as many citations as papers published in China or those published overseas without Chinese contributors. The authors called the phenomenon the “diaspora advantage”.

Their results were based on analysis of 1.6 million English-language papers in Elsevier’s Scopus database, focusing on science, mathematics and engineering – fields the authors said provided a “less politicised area of study than social sciences or humanities”.

Professor Freeman told Times Higher Education that the “close ties between Chinese and US scientists” and the “globalisation of science” would continue despite politics and travel bans caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is against the interests of so many people that the politicians may yell, but we will still do our work with our colleagues in other countries,” he said.

In the paper’s conclusion, the authors write that “as tensions over trade, refugee crises and Covid-19 pandemic fears have led to more nationalist orientation, the diaspora contribution deserves attention as a success of globalisation that spreads knowledge and talent widely and spurred the growth of global scientific publications”.

When asked whether the term “nationalist orientation” referred to the US or China, Professor Freeman responded that, in both countries, “politicians see a value in waving the flag”.

He emphasised the importance of collaboration as the world faced challenges such as Covid-19. “The best thing would be for an international team of scientists to come up with a vaccine, and then the benefits of science working without many borders would be clear to all, and maybe push world thinking in a better direction,” he said.


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