In the original brain drain scenario, intellectuals such as Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi left their home countries to escape the dangerous anti-Semitic environments of Germany and Italy, respectively; hundreds more scientists and scholars (e.g., Bauhaus architects) joined the exodus. Those who fled their countries could not return without putting their lives in jeopardy, and after the war, countries that lost such people lacked the resources to entice them to return.
But China’s “brain drain” did not meet these criteria. First, the government of China has always encouraged Chinese intellectuals studying and working abroad to return. In an effort to attract returnees in the late eighties, the government officially recognized and developed Beijing’s already-burgeoning Zhongguangcun area as a potential “Silicon Valley”; liaisons with offices in the United States, Japan, and the Netherlands were set up to recruit overseas Chinese to start technology businesses in Zhongguangcun and similar “pioneering parks” elsewhere in the country. In 1998, the Ministry of Education created the Changjiang Scholars program to bring overseas Chinese and foreign professors to lecture and research in China, and Tsinghua University followed a few years later by inviting 28 overseas Chinese scholars to lecture part-time at comparatively high salaries. More recently, the Chinese government has created the Thousand Talents program (2008) and the Young Thousand Talents program (2011) to encourage research in natural sciences and engineering by both Chinese and non-Chinese.
Reduced funding for science in the United States makes the rising Chinese economy even more attractive to some researchers.
“I’ve always wanted to go back [to China] at some point, but I thought I might go back in my late forties or later,” says Wei Peng, a former Harvard postdoc in immunology scheduled to return to China soon. At the time Peng first embarked on her academic career in the West, she viewed opportunities in China as limited. But when funding cuts in the US became severe, she decided to look for work in her field in China. And she found it .
“Little had I expected that China would change so much,” she says, referring to both the Chinese government’s investment in research and the proliferation of biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the country. Having lived and worked in the United States for decades, Peng plans to maintain ties with former colleagues and hopes to set up collaborations once she’s settled into her new position. She says she can imagine herself as a person “going back and forth” between China and the West in her future work.
In the original brain drain scenario, expatriate intellectuals generally did not return, and also did not contribute to research in their home country from abroad. Yet global networking technologies and eased travel restrictions have made collaborations between China and many other countries possible for many years now. Scientists like Haiyan Gao, professor and chair of the Physics Department at Duke University, have long been involved in just such collaborative work. Gao, whose research focuses on quark and gluon behavior, notes that collaboration comes naturally in her field; large scale nuclear physics projects require very specific equipment and frequently involve multiple research groups, often from more than one country. However, Gao sees collaborating with students and colleagues in China as a special opportunity to give something back.
“I think in the last ten years or so, for [China-born] people in the U.S. like myself, there is a desire to be able to help when we can,” Gao says. “But it is also mutually beneficial. Helping researchers and students in China also helps my own research.”
The reality that Chinese-American collaborations can be mutually beneficial negates the third characteristic of the original brain drain scenario: There was very little flow of foreign intellectuals into the “afflicted” countries. The positive research environment in China is drawing interest from Westerns at all levels of science and academia, not just from Chinese-born researchers living in the West. At the highest levels, memorandums of understanding (MOUs) are bringing together dozens Chinese and American institutions, such as the 2011 MOU between national labs Lawrence Berkeley and Oak Ridge and China’s National Energy Conservation Center (NECC). At a lower level, although China remains fifth as a study abroad destination for U.S. students, the number of U.S. students in China increased from 8,830 in 2005/06 to 13,910 in 2009/10, according to the Institute of International Education (IEE), and the United States government announced the goal of doubling that number by 2014. A country suffering brain drain as it was originally conceived does not garner that kind of attention.
“Sometimes students may ask, ‘Why didn’t you go back?’” says Gao. “If I were getting my degree now and were in a different research area, I may consider going back myself. Nowadays there are great opportunities in certain areas, so I encourage them to think about it.”
Some may argue that China is experiencing brain gain, the reverse of brain drain. But the whole concept of brain drain (and hence, its opposite) has been outdated for China for a while. Chinese-born and Western researchers have been coming and going, and contributing from abroad, for decades. The reality of China’s academic exchanges with the world is much more complex than the brain drain/brain gain dichotomy, and it’s time to stop thinking in such “either-or” terms.