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