Go East, young scientist

The United States is now facing a brain drain that threatens its traditional scientific and technological leadership, as more and more American scientists are heading for greater opportunities in China and other ambitious countries.  So says scientist Matthew Stremlau:

Twenty years ago, most molecular-science PhD graduates in the United States went on to start up their own labs at universities across the country. These labs drive innovation and keep the United States globally competitive. Today, however, only a handful of my friends will go on to run their own labs, though more would like to. Some go into industry or consulting or law. Others leave science altogether.

As public funding for science and technology shrinks, it just isn’t possible for people who want to become scientists in America to actually become scientists. So when a friend of mine who recently received her PhD in molecular biology asked for some career advice, the answer was easy. Go to China, I told her. . . .

The global science landscape is radically different from what it was when I started graduate school 10 years ago. Opportunities for cutting-edge science are sprouting in many other countries. China stands out. But there are plenty of others. India, Brazil and Singapore built world-class research institutes. Saudi Arabia aggressively recruits researchers for its King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. With a staggering $10 billion endowment there — larger than MIT’s — American scientists no longer need to suffer through Boston’s endless winters. Not to be outdone, Abu Dhabi opened the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in 2009. These emerging powers have a voracious appetite for good scientists. So they’re trying to poach ours.

I spent nearly two years doing molecular biology research in China. I have worked at the National Laboratory for Agrobiotechnology and at Peking University in Beijing. The Chinese are serious about science. Government spending on research and development has increased 20 percent each year over the past decade. Even in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008-09, China continued to bet big on science and technology. China now spends $100 billion annually on research and development. The Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, estimates that by 2013, Chinese scientists will author more articles in international science journals than American scientists do.

Chinese labs are cutting-edge intellectual melting pots of Chinese scientists trained in the East and in the West. This environment of creativity and hard work will produce big breakthroughs. Chinese universities aggressively recruit foreign scientists. The start-up packages can be generous and in some cases comparable to what a young faculty member receives in this country. In the future, China might be a better option for U.S. scientists desperate to fund their research. . . .

Talented scientists in this country often fall through the cracks because they can’t get funding. Agencies are deluged with applications and often have to reject as many as 90 percent of the proposals they receive. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to deteriorate further as budget cuts limit the resources available for research. So I’ve started encouraging my friends to think more creatively about their careers. Go to China, I tell them. Or Singapore or Brazil or the Middle East. If the United States can’t fund its scientific talent, find a country that will.

via Go to China, young scientist – The Washington Post.

Is this more evidence of American decline?  Or does it really matter in a global economy?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    So do we have too few educated folks or too many?

    Anyway, this line is interesting:

    “Chinese labs are cutting-edge intellectual melting pots of Chinese scientists trained in the East and in the West.”

    It seems to be saying that these folks are their own but with credentials from various places.

    “This environment of creativity and hard work will produce big breakthroughs.”

    Hard work I get, but creativity? Maybe so, but gov’t work generally rewards conformity. I guess we will find out.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    So do we have too few educated folks or too many?

    Anyway, this line is interesting:

    “Chinese labs are cutting-edge intellectual melting pots of Chinese scientists trained in the East and in the West.”

    It seems to be saying that these folks are their own but with credentials from various places.

    “This environment of creativity and hard work will produce big breakthroughs.”

    Hard work I get, but creativity? Maybe so, but gov’t work generally rewards conformity. I guess we will find out.

  • Cincinnatus

    This appeared to me to be an extended plea for public assistance for science.

    It was also incredibly myopic, both in the way that Science traditionally is about the unquestioned virtue of all Innovation and in the way that it seems to presume that China is not a gigantic economic bubble about to burst. And I often wonder whether scientists consciously choose to be tools of their governments. But there used to be a form of patriotism involved: I will dedicate the fruits of my research to the country that has raised me and permitted me to pursue it. The above article signals a shift (or maybe it isn’t a shift, and maybe I’m being merely nostalgic) to a purely self-interested model for science: I will sell the fruits of my research to the highest bidder, even if the winner is a despotic nation at enmity with my own.

    Meanwhile, I need to see data. I’m really not convinced. American graduate schools and university labs are chock full of Chinese nationals who come here, get a free Ph.D. on our dime, and return home–presumably to subvert the very aspects of American culture from which they recently benefited. This is certainly true at my Big 10 university, which last year received $1 billion (!!!) in scientific research grants. In other words, the United States, so far as I know, remains the premier location for scientific education and research. For a variety of reasons: academic freedom is mostly assured, grants are available from abundant sources (not just the government) and one need not “grease the wheels” to get them, and, not least, academic research is actually peer-reviewed here while plagiarism is generally scorned. This last feature of American academia is one of the things that China does not currently boast, and it is probably the biggest reason that Chinese research, scientific and otherwise, is not globally respected at the moment.

  • Cincinnatus

    This appeared to me to be an extended plea for public assistance for science.

    It was also incredibly myopic, both in the way that Science traditionally is about the unquestioned virtue of all Innovation and in the way that it seems to presume that China is not a gigantic economic bubble about to burst. And I often wonder whether scientists consciously choose to be tools of their governments. But there used to be a form of patriotism involved: I will dedicate the fruits of my research to the country that has raised me and permitted me to pursue it. The above article signals a shift (or maybe it isn’t a shift, and maybe I’m being merely nostalgic) to a purely self-interested model for science: I will sell the fruits of my research to the highest bidder, even if the winner is a despotic nation at enmity with my own.

    Meanwhile, I need to see data. I’m really not convinced. American graduate schools and university labs are chock full of Chinese nationals who come here, get a free Ph.D. on our dime, and return home–presumably to subvert the very aspects of American culture from which they recently benefited. This is certainly true at my Big 10 university, which last year received $1 billion (!!!) in scientific research grants. In other words, the United States, so far as I know, remains the premier location for scientific education and research. For a variety of reasons: academic freedom is mostly assured, grants are available from abundant sources (not just the government) and one need not “grease the wheels” to get them, and, not least, academic research is actually peer-reviewed here while plagiarism is generally scorned. This last feature of American academia is one of the things that China does not currently boast, and it is probably the biggest reason that Chinese research, scientific and otherwise, is not globally respected at the moment.

  • helen

    Cincinnatus @ 2
    “But there used to be a form of patriotism involved: I will dedicate the fruits of my research to the country that has raised me and permitted me to pursue it. The above article signals a shift (or maybe it isn’t a shift, and maybe I’m being merely nostalgic) to a purely self-interested model for science: I will sell the fruits of my research to the highest bidder, even if the winner is a despotic nation at enmity with my own.”

    In this, the young scientist would be different from the “businessmen” who have been shipping jobs overseas for 25+ years… HOW?

    We’ve known the bankers were not particularly for Americans since the 30′s. That they were not for America either has become obvious more recently.

  • helen

    Cincinnatus @ 2
    “But there used to be a form of patriotism involved: I will dedicate the fruits of my research to the country that has raised me and permitted me to pursue it. The above article signals a shift (or maybe it isn’t a shift, and maybe I’m being merely nostalgic) to a purely self-interested model for science: I will sell the fruits of my research to the highest bidder, even if the winner is a despotic nation at enmity with my own.”

    In this, the young scientist would be different from the “businessmen” who have been shipping jobs overseas for 25+ years… HOW?

    We’ve known the bankers were not particularly for Americans since the 30′s. That they were not for America either has become obvious more recently.

  • DonS

    Cincinnatus pretty much said what I was going to say. America’s great period of scientific innovation was hardly fueled by government funding for science. Government-funded science is politicized science, with government setting the research priorities, and scientists often compromising their scientific integrity to chase grants. That’s part of the reason we got into the climate change mess. Lower taxes and thereby encourage private research in areas having both short and long term application. That is a much better answer and approach.

  • DonS

    Cincinnatus pretty much said what I was going to say. America’s great period of scientific innovation was hardly fueled by government funding for science. Government-funded science is politicized science, with government setting the research priorities, and scientists often compromising their scientific integrity to chase grants. That’s part of the reason we got into the climate change mess. Lower taxes and thereby encourage private research in areas having both short and long term application. That is a much better answer and approach.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Ah, I’m too late to sound original.

    I’m with Cincinnatus (@2): “This appeared to me to be an extended plea for public assistance for science.” No doubt. I think that, even though I disagree with DonS’s claim (@4) that public funding necessarily produces scientists “compromising their scientific integrity”. If that were true, we’d have to dial back a ridiculous amount of scientific research done over the past several decades. Oh, and welcome back, Don. Hope the vacation was pleasant.

    Of course, I believe that, even with government intervention, the market still works. If there aren’t enough research jobs out there right now in the US, then what is the market telling us about how many PhDs we’re cranking out?

    I get that the author did research in China, but he offers little evidence that this is a major trend. As SG (@1) noted, he points instead to the rise of Chinese scientists, not opportunities for Americans in China:

    The Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, estimates that by 2013, Chinese scientists will author more articles in international science journals than American scientists do. Chinese labs are cutting-edge intellectual melting pots of Chinese scientists trained in the East and in the West.

    But hey, if you think life in China is on par with life in the US, have at it, I say. Why, you might even make a salary “comparable” to what you’d make back home! Surely that’s worth sacrificing your freedom of speech or religion or whatever else.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Ah, I’m too late to sound original.

    I’m with Cincinnatus (@2): “This appeared to me to be an extended plea for public assistance for science.” No doubt. I think that, even though I disagree with DonS’s claim (@4) that public funding necessarily produces scientists “compromising their scientific integrity”. If that were true, we’d have to dial back a ridiculous amount of scientific research done over the past several decades. Oh, and welcome back, Don. Hope the vacation was pleasant.

    Of course, I believe that, even with government intervention, the market still works. If there aren’t enough research jobs out there right now in the US, then what is the market telling us about how many PhDs we’re cranking out?

    I get that the author did research in China, but he offers little evidence that this is a major trend. As SG (@1) noted, he points instead to the rise of Chinese scientists, not opportunities for Americans in China:

    The Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, estimates that by 2013, Chinese scientists will author more articles in international science journals than American scientists do. Chinese labs are cutting-edge intellectual melting pots of Chinese scientists trained in the East and in the West.

    But hey, if you think life in China is on par with life in the US, have at it, I say. Why, you might even make a salary “comparable” to what you’d make back home! Surely that’s worth sacrificing your freedom of speech or religion or whatever else.

  • DonS

    Thank you, tODD @ 5. We had a great time.

    To clarify, I pretty much agree with your post. And, I don’t contend that there is NO role for government-sponsored research, or that government sponsored research is necessarily always p0liticized. I just quarrel with the notion that the government should be the primary sponsor of scientific research, or with research which is funded to support a particular favored political movement, wherein scientists feel pressure to conform their experiments and determinations to a predetermined consensus view. Certain areas of basic research, that do not have an immediate and direct commercial application may be appropriate for government funding, if there is a belief that the research will benefit the country in the l0nger term. Humanitarian research, such as the study of low-incidence diseases and development of therapies for them, where there is no commercial motivation for study, can also be appropriate, though I would prefer privately-funded humanitarian efforts of this nature.

  • DonS

    Thank you, tODD @ 5. We had a great time.

    To clarify, I pretty much agree with your post. And, I don’t contend that there is NO role for government-sponsored research, or that government sponsored research is necessarily always p0liticized. I just quarrel with the notion that the government should be the primary sponsor of scientific research, or with research which is funded to support a particular favored political movement, wherein scientists feel pressure to conform their experiments and determinations to a predetermined consensus view. Certain areas of basic research, that do not have an immediate and direct commercial application may be appropriate for government funding, if there is a belief that the research will benefit the country in the l0nger term. Humanitarian research, such as the study of low-incidence diseases and development of therapies for them, where there is no commercial motivation for study, can also be appropriate, though I would prefer privately-funded humanitarian efforts of this nature.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Actually DonS (@6), I think your recommendations somewhat contradict themselves, and certainly misunderstand the nature of science.

    On the one hand, you decry research done with a predetermined outcome in mind, and yet you also laud channeling research dollars to research that “will benefit the country in the longer term”.

    It seems to me that not a little of the science and engineering we enjoy today was the result of happenstance, of scientists investigating for the pure sake of advancing knowledge. Having an application (or result) in mind tends to narrow the implications of what one is studying. Yes, you may solve a tiny problem, but it is unlikely that you will fundamentally alter the milieu in which the problem occurs.

    But how do we as a society encourage such happy research accidents to occur? The market is unlikely to fund such research, because the market is usually looking for solutions to particular problems. My response is that the government should fund general research for just such a reason. That doesn’t mean that we should fund anything, or have no rubric for what gets funded, but that nor should we only fund that which we think will provide us with what we can currently envision using.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Actually DonS (@6), I think your recommendations somewhat contradict themselves, and certainly misunderstand the nature of science.

    On the one hand, you decry research done with a predetermined outcome in mind, and yet you also laud channeling research dollars to research that “will benefit the country in the longer term”.

    It seems to me that not a little of the science and engineering we enjoy today was the result of happenstance, of scientists investigating for the pure sake of advancing knowledge. Having an application (or result) in mind tends to narrow the implications of what one is studying. Yes, you may solve a tiny problem, but it is unlikely that you will fundamentally alter the milieu in which the problem occurs.

    But how do we as a society encourage such happy research accidents to occur? The market is unlikely to fund such research, because the market is usually looking for solutions to particular problems. My response is that the government should fund general research for just such a reason. That doesn’t mean that we should fund anything, or have no rubric for what gets funded, but that nor should we only fund that which we think will provide us with what we can currently envision using.

  • Louis

    Todd is completely correct. As a scientist, the last thing you want, if you want to do original/fundamental research, is some accountant hanging over you demanding a cost/benefit analysis. Plus some things will never be profitable – say archeology. And Archeology isn’t sexy enough to bring in lots of donor money – so government money it is. Unless your’e some kind of Vandal, in which case you just shut the program down…

  • Louis

    Todd is completely correct. As a scientist, the last thing you want, if you want to do original/fundamental research, is some accountant hanging over you demanding a cost/benefit analysis. Plus some things will never be profitable – say archeology. And Archeology isn’t sexy enough to bring in lots of donor money – so government money it is. Unless your’e some kind of Vandal, in which case you just shut the program down…


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X