‘Thousand Talents’ academic return scheme under review

China’s high profile ‘Thousand Talents’ scheme to lure back academic high-fliers may look on paper like a major success. But there is concern that it is not bringing researchers back to stay full-time, commit to the long-term development of China’s science and technology sector and nurture future local PhD talent.

Returnees prefer part-time or visiting research posts in China rather than full-time positions, according to experts. And they are often unwilling to leave tenured positions at major universities in the West.

The Chinese government is regarded as being among the most assertive in the world in introducing policies to reverse the brain drain of scientific and entrepreneurial talent, as part of its aim of becoming a global economic and science powerhouse.

The Thousand Talents scheme was launched in 2008 to lure back top talent, to boost the country’s innovation capacity and international competitiveness.

The plan was to attract over a period of 10 years around 2,000 leading researchers who have held professorships or the equivalent in a ‘renowned’ university or research institute abroad, as well as entrepreneurs.

Carrots included huge monetary and other incentives such as assistance with housing and tax-free education allowances for the children of such returnees.

Some 3,000 returnees have been recruited in less than five years under the initiative, according to official figures.

Few PhDs return

“The general view is that China is successful in enticing back top talent,” said David Zweig, director of the Centre on China’s Transnational Relations, at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “They have already over-fulfilled the quota under the Thousand Talents [scheme].”

But this includes many businesspeople and entrepreneurs who have been more willing to return, as well as those who returned to join state-owned enterprises. “If you look carefully at the data, and particularly the data for PhDs, then the numbers are not so terrific,” Zweig told University World News.

“For scientists and academics you definitely need a PhD; so that’s why over 80% of the returnees under the Thousand Talents programme have PhDs. It’s one of the best indicators of success,” of the programme, Zweig said.

“However, the return rate among Chinese who received their PhDs in the United States is shockingly low.”

According to data from the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, 92% of Chinese who received a science or technology PhD in the US in 2002 were still in the US in 2007. For India the figure was 81% and for Canada 55%.

“So Chinese, compared to everyone else in the world, are much more likely to stay abroad after they get their PhD,” according to Zweig.

The Chinese authorities used the financial crisis in the West as an opportunity to lure people back to booming China. “But overall the view is that people are not coming back.”

“Overall, right now the number of returnees is going up year on year but it is going up because the numbers going out [to study] are also going up. On average it was about 25% that were coming back overall, it’s now close to 40%,” Zweig said.

“The problem was that the Thousand Talents was really targeting the very best and the very best aren’t the ones coming back.”

A larger percentage of those going overseas to study are masters and MBA students, many of whom return to China. “Even undergraduates are coming back. But PhDs are not necessarily coming back in large numbers,” Zweig said.

Not permanent returnees

According to figures released late last year, China’s ministry of Science and Technology approved almost 300 major national scientific research programmes. Almost half the chief scientists involved in these programmes received their doctoral degrees in a foreign country.

Around 22% were high-level experts who returned to China after 2006, and 32 people were recruited under the Thousand Talents programme.

“But the big question is, how many of them have returned permanently? The government has never released any information about this. It is a flaw in the system,” said Cong Cao, associate professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at Nottingham University in the UK, and an expert on China’s science policy.

Because they cannot get tenured positions in China, top PhD holders are unlikely to leave research positions in the US and many try to combine a short-term position in China with a tenured position in America.

“Some are holding two ‘permanent’ positions, in China and abroad. It’s a gain for that person and it’s a gain for the [Chinese] university,” said Cao. “But it is very hard to say if China itself has gained anything.”

Under the Thousand Talents scheme, local and regional authorities and universities were encouraged to draw up wish lists of science talent and to recruit top returnees from abroad, and universities would also receive a reward of up to US$2 million for identifying and successfully recruiting top returnees from abroad, whether part-time or full-time.

The awards were usually intended for research conducted by the returning academic. But a proportion would also go to the institution for other expenses.

According to some reports, because of the need for institutions and local authorities to show results, some people who had previously returned to China with foreign PhDs were given lucrative awards under the scheme.

“The programme is under attack in China,” said Zweig. “A lot of universities are now being asked whom they brought in, how long they’re coming for – full-time or part-time.”

Review of Thousand Talents

The Thousand Talents scheme was supposed to run to 2018. But with the quotas already fulfilled, a mid-term evaluation is under way. Some local critics are already casting doubt on whether the scheme will be renewed until 2018.

“It’s not fulfilling the goal of the policy, which is to get people to come back full-time,” said Zweig. “It is not clear whether it will be renewed.”

“If there is a review the government will probably strengthen the condition that says you have to base your research in China and not have a joint appointment with a foreign university,” said Cong Cao.

Some universities, such as Tsinghua and Peking in Beijing, “are firm on this”, said Cao. “But some universities are definitely not.”

There are other problems with the scheme. It appears to be an unfair programme to many in China because it rewards those who came back later better than those who came back earlier. This may be deliberate, as the Chinese government is focusing on national development goals rather than equal treatment.

“The old competition used to be foreign PhDs versus domestic PhDs. Now the competition is between early returnees and later returnees. If you’re being brought back under the Thousand Talents programme, you’re being declared a world-class scholar, so the question is, 'what about those who have been back for 20 years?'” Zweig asked.

Returnees often find they cannot get research grants in China when they first come back because they are not part of existing funding networks.

It will need an overhaul of universities and the research system itself to resolve some of the issue preventing the permanent return of PhDs, according to Zweig.

He believes there needs to be less power in the hands of administrators, more open competition and more level playing fields to ensure that it is the best who benefit from the scheme.

But with the likelihood of greater autonomy for institutions quite slim in the current political climate, “ maybe they have reached their peak” in attracting back PhDs, suggested Zweig.