Monday, June 10, 2013

The sea turtles of Chinese chemistry academia

In this week's C&EN, a fascinating article on the returnees to Chinese chemical academia by Shawna Williams:
When Kuiling Ding joined the faculty of China’s Zhengzhou University as an assistant professor in 1990, he signed a five-year contract and in exchange received 5,000 yuan—about $1,350 according to the exchange rate of the time—in housing assistance. “At that time 5,000 yuan was still a big number,” he says—at least compared with his salary, which was less than 1,000 yuan per month. 
Now director of the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC), Ding is able to offer new assistant professors a starting salary of around 300,000 yuan ($49,000) per year, lab space in a gleaming new building, and housing assistance to cope with Shanghai’s sky-high real estate prices. Nearly all of SIOC’s new faculty are eligible for a special government program to recruit researchers with international experience, meaning that they can also receive about $1 million in start-up funds. 
In fact, 50 of SIOC’s 54 research professors have postdoctoral experience from an institution overseas, and some also earned their Ph.D.s abroad. “Over 10 years ago, most excellent researchers stayed abroad because the differences in the living standards, the research facilities, and the funding support between China and developed countries were too big at that time,” Ding says. “But now the gap is getting smaller and smaller.”
It’s a refrain echoed by nearly everyone familiar with chemistry in China: Science funding in the country is booming, and the quality and quantity of research produced are greater than ever. Talented Chinese chemists trained abroad are taking notice, and many are heading back to their native country for jobs. At the same time, Chinese chemists on both sides of the Pacific say that if their country is to attract its best researchers to come back home, it will need to make changes that go beyond what money can buy. 
The article is worth reading, if only to hear about what is stopping Chinese graduate students and postdocs from returning to China. Here's one excerpt that I did not expect:
SIOC’s Ding says that one challenge he faces in recruiting is that many potential faculty members are parents, and they don’t want to put their children in Chinese schools, where competition and pressure are notoriously high.
(I wonder if it is the fate of parents around the world that they do not wish to put their kids through the same path of schooling, even though it got them where they are?) Also, an interesting comment on Chinese academic funding and the it's-who-you-know-not-what-you-propose aspects:
Huang also believes that his successful funding proposal to the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) was evaluated on its merit. He says he bases that statement on his experience as a reviewer for NSFC and on the foundation’s reputation among his colleagues. Shi and Rao also credit NSFC with fair evaluation of proposals but say its grants are not as large as those given by other funding bodies that do weight decisions heavily on connections. 
Huang is one of 16 SIOC chemistry professors who earned their Ph.D. and did a postdoc abroad, compared with 34 who earned a doctorate in China but did a postdoc abroad, and four who did neither, says Ding. 
Researchers such as Huang are much less likely to return than are those who earned a Ph.D. in China, mostly because of the longer time spent away, according to David Zweig, a social scientist at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology who studies returnees to mainland China. “Unless they’ve gone back on a regular basis and built up a really close relationship with someone back in China who can help them get a job, they’ll have a hard time getting a job, grants, and tenure,” he says.
I know that most American academics are more than aware of the connections/relationships aspects of U.S. academia -- that said, I believe that most folks would agree that the U.S. system is more merit-based than not. (Perhaps the difference is that there are too many academic family trees and factions for any one set of relationships to dominate?) I would love to know the qualitative/quantitative differences between the U.S. and Chinese funding systems, who wins and who loses...

1 comment:

  1. JustAnotherChemistJune 11, 2013 at 7:02 PM

    "they don’t want to put their children in Chinese schools, where competition and pressure are notoriously high."

    That is exactly what one of my fellow post-docs said as to why she want to stay in the US instead of going back to china