China’s Efforts to Retain Scientists Paying Off

BEIJING — China’s government has thrown billions in recent years into building a top-notch research establishment, hoping to keep its best scientists working here and lure back those who are abroad.

Now comes a hint that that effort is beginning to pay off.

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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the world’s most prestigious research foundations, announced Tuesday that it was honoring 28 biomedical researchers who studied in the United States and then returned to their home nations. Each will receive a five-year research grant of $650,000.

Seven — more than any other nation — are from China.

“They’re incredibly energetic, extremely smart, highly productive and accomplished,” Robert Tjian, president of the institute, said of the Chinese winners in a telephone interview. The 28 are receiving the institute’s first International Early Career Scientist awards.

Founded in 1953 by the eccentric industrialist Howard Hughes, the institute, headquartered in Maryland, is one of the largest philanthropies supporting biomedical research. With an endowment of $17.5 billion, it dispenses about $700 million a year in grants to more than 350 researchers.

Portugal and Spain are each home to five of the winners of the new award. Dr. Tjian said those nations and China have made unusually strong efforts to excel in biomedical research. Italy and South Africa had two winners each, and Brazil, Poland, India, Hungary, Chile, South Korea, and Argentina each had one. The number of applications submitted by scientists from China was matched or nearly matched by scientists in some of the other eligible countries, the institute said.

Four of the seven Chinese winners work at China’s new National Institute of Biological Sciences, which is led by an American-educated scientist, Wang Xiaodong. The remaining three work at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, the Wuhan Institute of Physics and Mathematics in Hubei Province, and Nankai University in Tianjin.

Their research disciplines range from cell genetics to cell proteins and cell mechanics; from immune systems’ behavior to the human genome.

The international awards are an offshoot of a similar Hughes Institute program aimed at promising American scientists. The vast bulk of Hughes grants go to American-based research, Mr. Tjian said, but officials wanted to encourage work in other nations that are supporting high-level science and encourage collaboration between scientists in different nations. They also hope to promote American research tenets — challenging conventional wisdom and authority; rigorous discipline; transparency — abroad.

The number of winners from China, he said, reflects China’s “big investment in research” as well as other factors.

“Young people go where they can flourish the best,” he said. “And those countries have been able to attract young scientists trained in the U.S. to go back.”

“That’s a big hurdle. It used to be that people thought people came here and never went back. But I think now that is starting to change.”

Some of the award winners agreed. “I think it’s very obvious in recent years, and we’re very happy to see that,” Wang Xiaochen, a former doctoral student at the University of Colorado who is now at Beijing’s National Institute of Biological Sciences.

While many if not most Chinese doctoral students who choose to remain in the United States after their studies, she said, in China, “I don’t have to apply for a grant,” while in the United States “the funding situation already is very tough.”

“I think I’d have opportunities, but I’d have to spend a lot of time applying for funding. Here, I don’t have to apply for my own funding. So it’s an easy decision for me,” she said.

Competing for research financing serves a purpose, helping identify worthwhile projects. The United States remains by far the preeminent scientific research locale, financing more than one third of research and development worldwide last year, according to the Battelle Memorial Institute, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, and manages 14 American research laboratories and one in Switzerland.

But a 2010 Battelle report stated that American spending on research was reaching a plateau, while China was overtaking Japan as the second-largest financier of scientific work. Over all, the report stated, the United States spent close to $396 billion on research and development in 2010, compared to about $141 billion in China.

China’s expenses are rising quickly — about 9 percent in 2010-11, the report estimated — while American spending was projected to rise at a 2.7 percent rate.

Many federal research agencies received budget cuts last year, including the White House Office of Science and Technology, which was sliced 30 percent after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives expressed unhappiness over American scientific exchanges with China.

The chairman of the House committee supervising that budget, Representative Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, called such exchanges “a bilateral program with Stalin.”