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Babak Javid (right) of Tsinghua University in Beijing and his former student Junhao Zhu (left), now a postdoc at Harvard University

Rongjun Cai and Babak Javid

When Europeans do science in China

China’s evolution into a scientific superpower has altered the politics behind the global movement of scientific talent. Once seen as a benign step in fostering international collaboration, such migrations are now viewed as a potential threat to domestic research by officials in the United States and Australia. In this week’s two-part series, ScienceInsider examines the nature of interactions between European and Chinese scientists. Yesterday, we focused on how European funding agencies view the issue. Today, we explore the experiences of several European researchers who have worked in China (although some scientists cited the current political climate in declining to comment). Some aspects of their stories will sound familiar to academic scientists anywhere in the world, whereas others have a uniquely Chinese flavor.

Getting started

Babak Javid knew that assembling a strong research team would be essential to his success as a new faculty member at Tsinghua University in Beijing. But for the first 6 months after setting up his tuberculosis (TB) lab, the U.K.-trained physician-scientist struggled to find a single graduate student willing to come on board.

“One of the reasons I came to Tsinghua is that I had heard they had amazing graduate students,” says Javid, who arrived in the fall of 2011. “But nobody wanted to join my lab. And I thought, ‘I’m throwing away my career, just like everybody had warned me.’”

Javid knew that being the first foreign faculty member in the medical school’s department of basic medical sciences would be challenging. He neither spoke nor wrote Chinese, and he had no preexisting scientific ties to anyone at the university. Javid had a solid pedigree, having just completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health with Eric Rubin, who this month started his new job as editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. “But I’m not a famous Harvard professor,” Javid noted.

Then Junhao Zhu knocked on his door. A first-year student in a joint graduate program run by Tsinghua, Peking University, and the National Institute of Biological Sciences, Zhu was on his third and last rotation.

“For a lot of Chinese students, working with a foreigner doesn’t sound like a very good idea,” Zhu says. Apart from the language and cultural barriers, Zhu notes, Tsinghua students had already indirectly expressed a preference for a domestic mentor by staying at home. “They had decided not to apply to a foreign [graduate] program in the first place,” he notes.

Zhu initially felt the same way. But there was something about Javid that immediately won him over. “Babak was supercool,” he says, “and the first few projects I did with him were supercrazy.”

Javid says he deliberately chose difficult projects to test Zhu’s commitment to doing science, and that he passed them with flying colors. “To be honest, if he had had a pulse I would have said yes,” Javid says about Zhu. “But he turned out to be outstanding. And once he joined my lab, things turned around. He was plugged into the student network and he sang my praises.”

In 2017, Zhu graduated with a Ph.D. and a fascination with the basic biology of the mycobacterium that is the causative agent of TB. He’s now pursuing his passion at Harvard, following in his mentor’s footsteps as a postdoc in Rubin’s lab.

The styles of Rubin and Javid “are almost identical—they care a lot, but they also give you a lot of freedom,” Zhu says. Although Zhu would like a few more papers under his belt before considering his next career move, he says returning to China for an academic position “would be fantastic.”

Expectations met—and unmet

Zhu’s progress is a source of great pride for Javid, who regards his ability to help train the next generation of Chinese students as a major accomplishment. But Javid’s stay at Tsinghua has also been marked by a major disappointment. University officials promised to build a biosafety level three (BSL-3) laboratory that could host his experiments with dangerous pathogens, he says. They said it would take a few years, he says, a delay he felt was quite reasonable. But after 8 years no such lab exists.

“The lack of such a facility has hampered our work considerably,” he admits. “Maybe it was my naïvety that allowed me to think it would work out.” At the same time, he adds, “Except for the biosafety lab, which is a big issue, I have had outstanding material and human resources with which to do my science.”

Physicist Carlos-Andres Palma has suffered no such setbacks since coming to the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s (CAS’s) Institute of Physics in Beijing in 2017. Palma, an associate professor of molecular architecture and interfaces, says the opportunity to design and fabricate precision soft-matter devices is the reason he left the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, and came to China in 2017. And he is very pleased with the scientific support he has received.

“I had just turned 33 when I first heard about this opportunity,” says Palma, who grew up in Costa Rica and studied in France before coming to Germany. “The chance to build a lab like this while you are still relatively junior, with access to all these top-notch scientists [at CAS], is what made it so attractive.” Had he stayed at Max Planck, Palma adds, “It would have taken me 10 years to become a director” with the same degree of autonomy.

Spaniard Jose Pastor-Pareja, a fruit fly geneticist, offers a similar reason for his decision to come to Tsinghua in 2012. After completing a postdoc at Yale University with Tian Xu, now vice president of the 1-year-old Westlake University in Hangzhou, China, Pastor-Pareja planned to return to Spain to pursue an academic career.

“I was offered an independent position, but the timing was bad because Spain was facing an economic crisis,” he explains. “And there were opportunities in China. Tsinghua was already a very good place, and now it’s in the global top 20. Its facilities for structural biology are wonderful. And there are probably more than 40 fruit fly labs in Beijing alone, perhaps the highest concentration in the world.”

Supporting top talent

The foreign faculty members that ScienceInsider interviewed have enjoyed generous support to set up their labs and fund their research, as well as housing and travel allowances that supplemented their salaries. Javid says his total startup package came to more than $2 million, and other scientists mentioned comparable amounts. In addition to what their institutions provided directly, most scientists also benefited from a mélange of initiatives, often referred to collectively as the Thousand Talents Program, that the Chinese government launched more than 10 years ago to attract the world’s best researchers.

The terms of those foreign talent programs vary according to the level of scientific achievement and the sponsoring organization. Javid actually arrived before Tsinghua began to include such programs in its offers, he says, and Pastor-Pareja estimates that his Thousand Talents grant amounted to only about one-quarter of his overall startup package.

Pastor-Pareja rejects the idea the Thousand Talents Program is a tool for academic espionage. It’s no different than talent recruitment programs in Europe, he says, and equally innocuous.

“When you apply for a faculty position here [at Tsinghua] they encourage you to also apply to Thousand Talents,” he says. “It’s totally equivalent to the Marie Curie fellowships under Horizon 2020 for scientists wishing to move back to Europe.”

“So it’s ridiculous to see it labeled as a quasi-terrorist organization designed to steal things,” Pastor-Pareja continues. “It’s just another way to recruit talent.”

John Speakman, a Scottish physiologist who runs the molecular energetics lab at the CAS Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing, shares Pastor-Pareja’s fond feelings toward the program. “It happened at 10:30 a.m. on 11 July 2011,” Speakman says, recalling the exact time he received an email notifying him that his application to the program had been accepted. That notice, he adds, marked “the start of an amazing adventure.”

Then-director of the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, Speakman had been visiting China four times a year for 3 to 4 weeks at a time, doing fieldwork on the Tibetan Plateau with colleagues from the CAS Institute of Zoology. The award meant he could reverse that arrangement, that is, spend 9 months a year in China and the balance of his time back at Aberdeen, where he continues to run a lab.

Speakman had also wanted to shift his research away from zoology and into lab-based molecular biology. Accordingly, the award allowed him to set up shop at CAS’s genetics institute, which was next door to the zoology institute.

Although he says CAS officials strongly supported his application, Speakman suspects his arrival wasn’t that big of a deal for them. “They probably figured I would stay for a couple of years, and they could say they had a Thousand Talents fellow working for them,” he speculates. However, Speakman’s work on how organisms expend energy was going so well that, when the 5-year award ended, he had no desire to shutter his CAS lab.

Scottish physiologist John Speakman (left) runs a laboratory in Beijing while maintaining his affiliation with the United Kingdom’s University of Aberdeen, where he also has a laboratory.

Agata Rudolf

“When I came, I was told that the Thousand Talents award was renewable and that I could reapply,” he recalls. “That turned out not to be the case. So the immediate issue for CAS was who would pick up my salary.”

CAS officials suggested he apply to a CAS program, called the President’s International Fellowship Initiative (PIFI), that would pay for 60% of his salary. Getting that 3-year award in late 2017 also solved another problem Speakman was facing.

“I’m 60, and the retirement age here is 60,” he says. “But there are exceptions. And having this grant gives me the right to stay around. My intention is to stay here until I retire.”

Learning the ropes

Western scientists working in China must navigate the country’s formidable—and opaque—research bureaucracy without knowing the rules of the game and without the language skills to learn them on their own. That means relying on the advice and good will of their Chinese colleagues.

French neuroscientist Quentin Montardy came to the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology (SIAT) in 2014 as a postdoc to work with Liping Wang, who trained under optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “I wanted a good lab, so I looked for someone who had mastered a new and very powerful technology,” Montardy explains.

After receiving an initial grant from SIAT, Montardy needed his own source of funding to earn the status of an assistant investigator. He was encouraged to apply to the CAS PIFI program for young scientists.

“Fortunately,” he recalls, “the application had to be in English as well as in Chinese. And that was a relief. Because I never know exactly what is in the Chinese version” of a grant proposal.

Being a foreigner can even be a slight advantage in securing more time in the lab, Pastor-Pareja says. “Like any faculty member in the U.S. or Europe, you have to serve on a number of committees,” he explains. “But I’m on the low end of that requirement. Because I don’t speak Chinese, I would be of limited value in doing the paperwork, which is plentiful here.”

One difference between China and many academic labs in the West is the reduced dependence on postdocs. Top Chinese graduate students interested in an academic career are encouraged to go abroad for their postdoctoral training, with the understanding that the foreign experience will put them on the fast track for a position back home. But the downside of that practice is a smaller domestic pool of top-notch postdocs.

In comparison, graduate students are plentiful, as the number of Chinese graduate programs in the sciences is growing rapidly. But the government regulates where they can study. Each institute or university is given a quota, allowing officials to control the influx of students from rural areas into already congested cities.

That quota system can be a challenge for someone setting up a lab at an institution seeking to raise its research profile through new hires. “If an institute grows and takes on more PIs [principal investigators], and the quota isn’t raised, then you end up with a squeeze on the number of students you can supervise,” Speakman explains.

Speakman considers himself lucky. “I was given a pretty favorable deal: I could take in two students one year, and one student the next. Normally, a faculty member would get one student every other year.” After Pastor-Pareja was granted tenure last year, his annual quota rose from one to two students.

Palma learned about the quota system, which he called “an unpleasant surprise,” only after joining the CAS physics institute. But he has since learned how to get around it: paying to support a student covered under the quota of another scientist. “It works out if you know other faculty members,” he says.

Speakman adds: “Of course, you need contacts. And it can take time for a foreign scientist to develop those contacts.”

The foreign cachet

Most foreign scientists come to China with a wealth of contacts, both in their home country and from around the world. Chinese scientists are eager to tap into that network, Javid says.

“There’s this cachet that comes from a collaboration with an overseas lab,” Javid says. “It’s ironic. If I would have taken a job at a British university, it would have been easier to set up a collaboration with China’s CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] than doing it from Tsinghua.”

Javid has also found a way to take advantage of the high regard assigned to foreign scientists. “There is a quality BSL-3 lab in Beijing,” Javid says. “But I didn’t know the lab existed because it doesn’t do any TB research. And the only way I found out about it is that a famous TB researcher from America looked me up during a visit to that lab and introduced me to that other group. And now we have started a collaboration.”

Friends and family

Western scientists say there’s no way to avoid feeling isolated after arriving in China. But there are ways to break through that isolation, they say. For some, it’s bringing along their spouse and family. For others, it’s building a new network of colleagues and friends, or embracing the sights and sounds of their new home.

“To really make it work,” Speakman says, “you need to have your family with you. I’ve known people who come by themselves for the 3-month [Thousand Talents–like] program, and that tends not to work out so well. Committing to a big block of time lets you push things forward.”

Speakman says he was fortunate to have a wife willing to relocate and children whose schooling was not adversely affected by the move. For Javid, the familial contribution was even more direct.

“My initial plan was to go back to England [after his postdoc at Harvard],” he recalls. “But my wife said: ‘Now’s the time to be bold and do something different.’”

China was an obvious choice, he adds. In fact, when his initial query to Tsinghua’s posting of a faculty position was met by silence, he quickly wrote back: “My wife and I believe that China is the country of the future.”

French microbiologist Sébastien Leclercq wouldn’t disagree with that geopolitical assessment. But after spending 2 years as a postdoc at the CAS Institute of Microbiology in Beijing (IMCAS), he and his Chinese-born wife returned to France in 2014 to take a job with the country’s National Institute for Agricultural Research in the Loire Valley.

Its pastoral setting was a major attraction, he says. “Scientifically, [IMCAS] was very good,” he says about his time with Jie Feng, who studies antimicrobial resistance in farm animals. “The lab was up to date, with a lot of new equipment, and the people there were eager to do good science.”

“But I knew that big cities were not where I wanted to live. I went there to test that idea, and despite the science, I could not do it. … Now, our life is here and we both enjoy it very much. I don’t think we’ll ever go back [to China].”

Looking ahead

Personal and professional considerations have also prompted Javid to think hard about his next career move. But whatever happens, he says he has no regrets about his time in China.

“The trust that the university has shown in me has enabled me to develop a bold vision,” he says. “Even if half of what we tried didn’t work out, enough did that we could make a name for ourselves. To new faculty, I’d recommend [coming to China] without hesitation.”

Such gushing endorsements may no longer even be necessary to attract Western-trained scientists in China, some foreigners say. “The current furor [in the United States over alleged academic espionage] is making things more difficult for Chinese scientists and blunts the advantages of going to the United States for an academic career,” Pastor-Pareja says. “When you think about it, this is exactly what [China] wanted to accomplish [under the Thousand Talents Program], to bring top scientists to China.”

Pastor-Pareja says he wouldn’t be surprised to start to see tangible evidence of the crackdown in the work of recruitment committees at Tsinghua on which he serves. And he also may benefit. “I would be happy to take a few postdocs with the right backgrounds if they have to leave the U.S. in a hurry,” he says.

Pastor-Pareja predicts that the political frenzy will die down if a Democratic candidate wins the 2020 U.S. presidential election. “The Chinese haven’t really responded, which I think is the right thing to do,” he adds.

In the meantime, however, the issue remains sufficiently sensitive that some European scientists who have been working in China didn’t want to discuss the issue when contacted by ScienceInsider. “I don’t see how it would benefit me to talk to you,” says one British scientist who requested anonymity. “I was funded by the Thousand Talents Program, and its recipients are being targeted. It could also affect my chances of getting a U.S. visa.”

“I realize I’m being ultracautious,” the scientist added. “But I don’t want to endanger those relationships.”