Research returnees boost China’s scientific impact

An unprecedented rise to world-class status.

18 September 2019

Dalmeet Singh Chawla

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Europe and US-based Chinese researchers have been flooding back to China in recent years, a new study reveals.

An investigation into the publication patterns of Chinese scholars who worked abroad, based on information from the citation database, Scopus, finds that researchers are returning to China at a higher rate in 2017 than they were a decade ago, with a larger percentage returning from the EU than the US.

In 2017, nearly 10,000 researchers from the US and more than 5,000 from the EU moved to China. Most of these were researchers of Chinese origin returning to China.

The figures have risen sharply from 2010, when just under 5,000 scholars moved to China from the US and around 2,300 from the EU.

As returnee rates rise, the number of entrants has spiked, too. In 2017, there were nearly 14,000 researchers from China working in the US and just under 5,000 in the EU.

The figures for 2010 are much lower, at just over 8,000 and 2,500, respectively.

For every one returnee, 1.4 Chinese scientists now remain in the US, while the turnover ratio of returnee to remainer in the EU is roughly one to 0.9, respectively.

The most eminent scientists tend to stay in the US, the study found, however, the opposite was true for the EU, from where even prominent researchers have been returning to China.

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The study, posted as a pre-print on the Social Science Research Network, found that 12% of papers published by researchers in mainland China are by those who have overseas experience.

It also found that returnees usually make a bigger impact in literature than those who never left China. In 2005, researchers in China were authors of just 6% of the world’s most highly cited (top 10%) of research. By 2017, that figure had risen to 14%, of which 5% have worked abroad.

“It’s unprecedented that a country would come from so far behind to be a world-class player,” says study co-author, Caroline Wagner, a public policy scholar at Ohio State University in Columbus.

The tip of the iceberg

Frank Pieke, director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, who was not involved in the study, says the number of Chinese-origin researchers in the US has probably fallen particularly fast in the last couple of years, which this paper does not account for.

Recent months have seen a series of investigations from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into US-based Chinese researchers over fears of intellectual property theft and espionage, leading to a number of scientists resigning or being dismissed.

Wagner says she can’t speculate on the trend in the last two years, but notes that anti-Chinese sentiments have recently “become a barrier for some people coming to the United States and wanting to remain”.

Wagner’s previous work suggests that the more open a country is, the higher its citation impact.

Kieron Flanagan, a science policy researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK, notes that China conducting high-impact research is a positive, but “the fundamental attractiveness of US science hasn’t changed.”

“America’s strength in science and technology has largely come by being able to attract from offshores the top scientific talent for more than 50 years,” Wagner adds.

“Any policy actions which would dissuade top researchers from coming to the US would not be a good thing.”

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