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Researchers Go East, to China

Experience in an overseas laboratory is an important part of career development for research scientists and part of the fabric of modern science. But, although many thousand Chinese PhD students and postdocs go abroad to study and research every year, very few non-Chinese nationals have made the reverse trip to live and pursue research in China.

But thanks to a strengthening economy, opportunities for international collaboration with Chinese universities have never been better. Many initiatives are in place to promote scientific networking with China. The European Union-funded CO-REACH initiative, for example, is a consortium of 12 national bilateral research programmes with China that commands a combined annual budget of €12 million. China's language and culture remain substantial obstacles to pursuing a career in the country, if only due to the perceptions of Western scientists; still, some Western researchers have pulled if off, finding in China a challenging but generally friendly research environment. "You will need to be motivated and determined, as you would to do science anywhere," says Beijing-based British molecular biologist Sarah Perrett. "But the experience of living and working in China can be extremely rewarding."


UK materials chemist David Evans has been working at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT) for a decade. Evans's first extended research experience in China was in 1996 when he worked for a year as a visiting scholar at BUCT. Following that, he took up an invitation to join the faculty. His relationship with scientists in China started as a lecturer at the University of Exeter when he made a series of short trips to collaborate with BUCT experts on his principal research interest: layered inorganic materials. "At the time, China did not attract the attention it does today," says Evans. "My move was described as 'brave’ by more polite colleagues in the UK."

David Evans with Professor Xue Duan at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology.

Another European pioneer is Veronique Prinet, a French computer scientist who ventured to China early in her career. Prinet's home institution--the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (INRIA) near Paris--has a long-standing collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of Automation (IoA). After obtaining her PhD in 1999, she obtained a CAS postdoctoral position at IoA using an INRIA scholarship. In 2000, she secured an associate professor position at IoA in a competitive search. She is the first foreigner to be appointed to the CAS staff.

Language and Culture

Prinet says that before she came to IoA, she knew "next to nothing about China" and spoke no Chinese. During her first semester in China, she studied Chinese part-time at QinghuaUniversity, but her language skills, she says, mainly developed at work during chats with her IoA colleagues.

In contrast, Sarah Perrett spent time studying Chinese before her arrival. Perrett, who works on the molecular mechanism of prion formation at the CAS Institute of BioPhysics (IBP), also in Beijing, first visited IBP in 1997 during a holiday to China while she was a research fellow in Cambridge, U.K. She gave a talk at the institute and was so impressed by the laboratory facilities and the research staff that her eyes opened to the possibility of doing research in China. Perrett returned to IBP the following year on a 2-week Royal Society-funded "study visit" and was offered a position in the laboratory of Jun-Mei Zhou. Subsequently, she was awarded a Royal Society Post-Doctoral Fellowship–-the first time this long-established award had been given for work in China.

With the continued support of her Cambridge fellowship and other grants, Perrett was able to spend a year studying Chinese full-time at the National University of Singapore; she was reasonably fluent before joining Zhou’s group in September 2000."This was crucial to the success of my integration into the system. All the other staff at the institute are Chinese," says Perrett.

Although Perrett took learning the language very seriously, she believes that nowadays Chinese language skills are less necessary. Thanks to a succession of government initiatives to bring Chinese academics working abroad back home, the scientific environment in China is increasingly bilingual. Prinet speaks Chinese, but her Chinese students have good English, so, she says, English is frequently the common language for discussions.

But language skills are also important to open doors outside the lab. "You would miss a lot of the experience" of living in China, says Evans, "without any Chinese." To fully appreciate the experience, you need to immerse yourself in the Chinese environment and adopt Chinese habits, say our researchers. "Buy your bicycle, master the chopsticks, and immerse yourself in the culture," Prinet recommends.

Sarah Perrett with her colleagues at the Institute of Biophysics in Beijing.

"China is a different world, and you have to be flexible and open-minded. It is very different to Europe or the US. With China, it is true to say that you either love the country and culture or you hate it--there is no middle ground," Evans says.

Academic Salaries

Chinese research salaries are not generous by Western standards; on average, group leaders earn about 5000 yuan a month, which is roughly equivalent to US $625. In recent years, the pay scale has become more flexible; Chinese returnee scientists, for example, can command about twice the standard salary. The cost of living is about four times lower than in Europe, although some financial issues, like the prohibitive cost of international schools and provisions for a suitable pension, can be difficult for foreign researchers working long-term in China.

Appreciating Science

One aspect of Chinese culture that works to the advantage of scientists, says Prinet, is that in China scientists are highly respected: "Scientific research is seen as very important here. The investment in R&D is huge, and there is a very dynamic atmosphere. There is room to develop scientific ideas in a truly stimulating environment. China is a place where science is appreciated, where scientific advance is seen as a first step toward a better life."

There are also some advantages to the Chinese approach to research, says Evans, noting that his research department is more in tune than most Western academic departments with scientific entrepreneurship. The department takes an interdisciplinary approach involving chemists and chemical engineers and links fundamental research and application closely. In-house pilot-plant facilities allow scale-up of processes and products for fast commercial development--something, Evans says, that is more problematic in European academe.

Investment in Science

Of course the country's fast-growing economy doesn't hurt the scientific community. "China is certainly developing very fast," says Evans. "In less than 10 years, it had doubled the percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] spent on R&D to around 1.3%." This is still lower than the US, Japan, and most of Europe, but, Evans says, "in cash terms, research funding has risen very rapidly indeed, allowing renewal of laboratories and equipment." The last R&D expenditure figures--from 2004--from the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology show a gross domestic R&D expenditure of 196.6 billion yuan (approximately US $24.6 billion)--1.23% of GDP--compared to 0.76% of GDP spent in 1999. China plans to increase spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2020. So although R&D expenditure in China is still low relative to the United States (which has an annual R&D investment on the order of US $250 billion) and Europe, the growth in R&D spending is strong.

Establishing a Career in China

Alastair Murchie just accepted an offer as a principal investigator at the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBS) at Fudan University in Shanghai. Murchie’s wife is Chinese, so he's no stranger to China. When he was interviewed for his position at IBS last year, the work environment he encountered "just knocked me for six," he says. Following a highly competitive interview process, Murchie was given an offer that was "too good to refuse." He will be starting up a new department in a brand-new building with a state-of-the-art laboratory that is fully funded for 3 years. "The support and commitment to science in the long term in China is clear and impressive," says Murchie. This contrasts with his recent experience in the UK of the struggle to "squeeze funding out of the Research Councils or the EU." What has really impressed him is his students' tremendous enthusiasm and capacity for hard work. Science in China was underfunded in the past, but, he says, Chinese scientists are increasingly publishing in high-impact journals.

Alastair Murchie at the Institute of Biomedical Science at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Establishing a scientific career in China, as in the rest of the world, requires time, hard work, and support from senior scientists. "To become fully established, you need someone senior to support you," says Perrett. One place this matters a lot is in obtaining funding. The overall funding rate for grants from the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation is about 10% to 15%, but Perrett has achieved about a 50% success rate so far, which is typical of researchers in her institute. She has benefited from senior academic support, especially by their willingness to include her in larger programme grants. Still, writing and defending the applications in Chinese is tough, she says, "but I wouldn’t expect it to be easy in the UK or elsewhere. In fact, I find the documentation for EU funding harder to fathom than Chinese."

Murchie managed to reestablish an academic career, mid-career, in China. This isn't easy anywhere, and Murchie appreciates the flexibility he has encountered. Before obtaining his position at IBS, he worked for many years at biotech and drug-discovery companies in Europe. In the UK, his return to academia would, he thinks, have been much more challenging. "Returning to academia mid-career is not the easiest thing to do in the current European environment," he says.

Getting Published

Western scientists may worry that scientists in China would not be free to publish, but this hasn't been Perrett's experience. "In terms of academic freedom, scientists are able to work on whatever interests them," subject to funding, just as in the West. She adds, "The emphasis seems to be as much on high-impact publications as [on] topics of ‘national importance.’ "


Perrett's advice for those considering "taking the plunge" in China: "Apply for fellowship funding; many countries now have schemes for exchanges with China, from a few weeks to 2 years. Having your own funding gives you more freedom, eases any lifestyle issues, and is a help to your host institution." This, she adds "is also a good first step if you are considering working in China longer term." Evans says it is relatively easy to make contact with Chinese universities and to set up lecture tours. Funding for such visits is available, he says, from many European bodies. He also suggests visiting different parts of China to get a feeling for the country and the level of research funding, which does vary from region to region.

Now that she has established an independent research group at IBP and successfully competed for Chinese government grants, Perrett says that the move to China was positive for her professional development. "It is an exciting opportunity to see what science in China is like and to collaborate with Chinese scientists," she says.

"Gaining experience through international collaboration is a normal part of the postdoc career," she concludes. "Today, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be in China--and there is a lot to be gained by both sides."

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Timothy J. Reynolds is a freelance writer based in Brussels and the UK.