Opinion | Arthur W. Lambert

Can the US stop the scientific brain drain to China?

(Globe Staff/Adobe)

While disputes over trade deficits and tariffs have dominated headlines in recent weeks, another battle is brewing below the surface: the fight for top-tier scientists. The great strength of American science lies in our ability to attract the best and brightest from around the world. In turn, the scientific ecosystem in the United States fosters fundamental breakthroughs that lead to new technologies, new companies, and new jobs. Nowhere is this more evident than in Greater Boston. But there is competition on the horizon, and from the lab bench it is easy to see who is poised to take our place. China is making smart and significant policy moves to bolster its scientific ranks – changes that are likely to improve the image and increase the impact of Chinese science.

The most obvious indication of China’s commitment to science is the vast amount of money it has devoted to research and development in recent years. Although the United States still spends the most on R&D, China is on pace to overtake the United States soon, perhaps by the end of the year, according to the US National Science Board. But to become the scientific superpower of the future, China will need more than just money. It will need the very best scientists. And, increasingly, my colleagues are fleeing to China.

Take the Thousand Talents program. Started in 2008, the program aims to lure back Chinese scientists who have trained abroad. In recent years, a particular emphasis has been placed on early-career scientists, and nearly 3,000 “young talents” have been supported. As more promising young Chinese scientists elect to start their laboratories back home — instead of in the United States — the next generation of insights and innovations will increasingly emerge from China.

Perhaps most important, China is also working to become a more attractive place for non-Chinese scientists to immigrate. These efforts range from minor (making the Thousand Talents application available in English) to the major (overhauling the immigration and visa system). Some programs in development aim to mimic successful private funding strategies in the United States, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which makes investments in leading scientists rather than their individual projects. And, for the first time, foreign scientists can now serve as principal investigators on research grants in China. While these policies exist in various stages of implementation, the effect of this cultural shift is already palpable in the scientific community.


One difficulty that China confronts is that of scientific legitimacy. Case in point: The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine has been awarded to 97 scientists in the United States and only one in China, in 2015. Chinese science still bears the thread of a reputation that is associated with low-quality, high-quantity publications that run in predatory, semi-illegitimate journals. But here, too, China is taking real steps to correct this problem. In June, an editorial in Nature praised recently announced reforms in China to combat scientific fraud and misconduct as a policy that “might offer the greatest disincentive to cheating in research that the world has seen so far.”


The United States is still the preeminent location for scientific research, but this is not a given, and we should not take it for granted. The new policies being implemented by China, and especially their ambition to attract outside talent, could quickly drain the lifeblood of our scientific institutions. Without a determined effort to attract, support, and retain leading researchers, we cannot expect to drive the breakthroughs, technologies, and medicines of the future. Massachusetts has admirably made a strong commitment to biotechnology through the Life Sciences Initiative. But will this be enough to sustain the scientific ecosystem of the entire country?

This battle for scientists will have long-term implications. In the current trade dispute with China a major issue concerns the unfair practice of forced transfer of intellectual property. But the focus on this issue, however justified, ignores a larger point: Protecting our IP will be irrelevant if China poaches the talent behind our innovations.


Recently, I was having lunch with a prominent US-based cancer scientist. We were in Kendall Square, the epicenter of the biotech universe. But we spent most of the lunch talking about China. He was in the process of securing a green card, looking for a second academic appointment in the country, and working on starting a company in Beijing. “Everything is happening there,” he said. “You have to go!”

Arthur W. Lambert is a postdoctoral fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.