Comment Physics World  September 2018

Attracting the best

China is developing new polices that enable foreign scientists to take up leadership positions. (iStock/Wenjie Dong)

Few people will doubt China’s rise as a scientific powerhouse in recent years – aided by ample funding and the construction of many world-class facilities. The boom, which shows no sign of abating, was in part helped by the introduction of the 1000 Talents programme a decade ago. Designed to persuade top Chinese researchers who have spent time abroad to return home, the policy has been a roaring success with many scientists bringing back experience of working in top labs from around the world.

Yet a gaping hole in the success of the programme has been its inability to attract foreign-born researchers to make a permanent move to China. While many scientists outside China know that working in the country can be attractive, thanks to well-equipped labs, access to top students and seemingly unlimited finds, even such generous resources have so far failed to lure enough foreign scientists.

A recent document released by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China indicates a new shift in emphasis in China’s talent-recruitment drive. Through the new policy, the Chinese government is ramping up its quest to attract non-Chinese scientists recognizing that the country needs to foster a more collaborative approach to become truly innovative. Any country wanting to attract the best scientists has to give them the opportunity to take the top jobs – and China’s new policy will wisely enable foreign scientists to become principal investigators on national research programmes for the first time.

One foreign scientist frustrated by career progression in China is astronomer Richard de Grijs. Originally from the Netherlands, he spent eight years in Beijing at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Writing in this issue, however, he points out that he was told on “multiple occasions” that his ambitions to get a new position in the country had been “cut short” because of his foreign citizenship. De Grijs was also informed that he didn’t receive government funding he had applied for because he was not Chinese.

De Grijs does point to the many benefits of working and living in China, adding that the scientific community is “vibrant, attractive and ever-more internationally competitive”. Still, the issues faced by de Grijs – and others like him – will need rectifying if China hopes to welcome more foreign scientists, especially if the country fulfils its plans to build a huge Circular Electron Positron Collider in the coming decade as well as launch a pioneering gravitational-wave space mission.

China still has more to do to stop foreigners hitting the proverbial glass ceiling – and achieve as much as their talented local colleagues do.