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U.S.-Based Chinese Scientists Ponder Their Influence at Home and Abroad

TAIPEI—With sessions ranging from aquaculture to structural biology and from neuroscience to entrepreneurship, the 12th International Symposium of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America (SCBA) that kicked off here today is certainly eclectic. The unifying principle is life science and Chinese-ness.

Founded 25 years ago, the 3000-member SCBA is the largest professional society for Chinese bioscientists in the world. The group sprang up because "it's a part of Chinese culture to try to maintain an identity over and above joining the mainstream," says Kuan-Teh Jeang, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

SCBA’s initial mandate was to help Chinese scientists navigate the U.S. academic world. The society’s agenda then widened to include trying to surmount what Jeang, who is the SCBA president-elect, diplomatically calls "the political divisions among Chinese areas." As a non-governmental and non-political organization, SCBA has encouraged collaborations with and among scientists in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Part of this effort led SCBA to alternate its biannual conferences between North America and those Chinese regions. The meeting starting here today on the campus of Academia Sinica has attracted 1300 participants, including more than 400 from other Chinese regions and North America.

The group's influence runs deep. "Large numbers of American educated scientists are going back [to Chinese regions] and they are the driving force behind many of the progressive changes you see there," Jeang says. Joseph Li, a virologist at Utah State University, Logan, says SCBA and its members have contributed to getting the Chinese regions to pay greater attention to health and environmental issues and to introduce more rigorous grant review procedures. "In Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, [grant reviews] now follow the NIH process, but 10 years ago they didn't," Li says. He foresees similar progress in mainland China. One effect of these efforts will be "to make the quality of science [in Chinese territories] as good as that in the United States or better within 5 to 7 years," Li says.

A continuing disappointment for the group is that so few Chinese scientists have risen to scientific leadership positions in the United States. Kenneth Fong, a molecular biologist, biotech entrepreneur and member of the board of trustees of California State University, says that upwards of 25% of faculty members in the state university system are Chinese, yet no Chinese have risen to the position of provost or president. He says it is not the result of overt discrimination, but more subtle things that prevent Chinese from being fully accepted members of the academic establishment. If opportunities for advancement remain limited, Fong warns, the United States "will lose those leaders to Asia."