Accomplished physicists, biologists, and mathematicians—who might produce technological breakthroughs and build key research programs—have long balked at low pay and a university system marred by corruption, cronyism, and lax standards. But now, China’s economic boom and surging government investment in research are making mainland university posts more attractive. A decade ago, only 1 in 100 leading Chinese scientists in the U.S. would have considered returning, says Rao Yi, a former Northwestern neuroscience professor who is dean of Peking University’s life sciences school. Today, he says, half would. “Now, there is a chance of recruiting the rising stars of Harvard,” says Rao.
Higher pay helps, but returnees say the main allure is the chance to build a science program from the ground up. While U.S. labs are struggling for funds, China is expanding. Shi says he earns less in China than at Princeton, where he ran a structural biology lab and helped found a drug-discovery company. But at Tsinghua, he helped design a life sciences program with 1,500 students. So far, Shi has hired 22 scientists from the U.S. to set up labs and has made offers to an additional 15.