Chinese academic talents:from brain drain to reverse brain drain

By By Li Mei / 08-01-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Opening ceremony of Overseas Entrepreneur Talent Week and the setting-up of the website of The Recruitment Program of Global Experts , Dalian, 2010
Ever since the 21st Century, many countries in the world have made all-out efforts to construct world-class universities and research institutions, aiming at the dominant position in knowledge, science and technology, trying to win the global race to capture academic talents.
Global flow of academic talents
Currently the global flow of academic talents is characterized by five points.
•A multi-polar structure in the globe rather than the flow from the developing countries to the developed ones in the past.
•From a unidirectional flow mode of brain drain and reverse brain drain to a new mode of the co-existence of brain drain, reverse brain drain and circulation flow.
•The direction and characteristics are determined by governments, institutions, market(society) and individuals in both talent-exporting and importing nations.
•Government policies, systems and institution strategies form the macro-environment while market mechanism crosses the border of nations, acting as the lever for supply and demand of global academic talents.
•The global knowledge network and higher education system is centered on developed countries, especially the United States and Europe.  The developed countries have influential dominance over international organizations and their competition for the talents from developing countries has aggravated the unbalanced development and unfair competition.
China still challenged by brain drain
Ever since the Reform and opening–up, the Chinese government has been committed to the policy of sending students and visiting scholars abroad and in 1993 introduced the policy of “supporting students and scholars studying abroad, encouraging them to return to China upon their completion of studies and guarantee them the freedom of coming and going” .  Although many talents have chosen to return to China, China was also faced with serious brain drain. 
From 1978 to 2009, 1.62 million Chinese students have studied abroad, making China the No.1 student-exporting country.  490,000 of them have returned to China.  However, the majority of Ph.D and postdoctoral researchers in science and engineering have chosen to stay in developed countries.  In the main student-importing countries such as the US, the UK and Japan, the number of Chinese students ranks on the top.  90% of them are self-financed students who have not only brought vast economic interests to developed countries, but also provided labor force for higher education institutions and R&D institutions there.
Policy taken to attract more overseas talents  
The policy of attracting more talents back home has increased the scale and improved the structure, setting a good circumstance where concerted efforts have been made by governments at all levels, higher education institutions and enterprises to attract more talents to return to China.  From 1994 to 2009, 1846 people have been selected in the “Hundred Talents Program”, among which 1,292 are selected as “Outstanding Overseas Talents”. 1,510 overseas talents have been selected under the “Recruitment Program of Global Experts” ever since 2008.  Despite all the achievements, there is still much room for improvement.  
Soft Environment needs to take follow-up action
The soft environment for talents refers to the macro academic environment, scientific research system and professional environment in higher education institutions.  Efforts should be made to encourage fair play, reduce top-down administrative interference as well as transform the undue quantitative evaluation system.  A failure in such follow-up actions in the soft environment will affect the job security of the returned talents and also reduce their enthusiasm to work hard.  All these may cause brain drain again and have negative effect on those who are considering whether to return or not.  Therefore to “bring in” talents is not enough; rather, the enhancement of education and scientific research is much needed.  They should be trusted and assigned to important positions so that they can make contribution in improving academic environment.
Meanwhile, it is also worth noticing that over emphasizing overseas talents and neglecting of home-grow talents may create conflicts between the two and dampen the enthusiasm of those who have long returned to China.
In addition, favoring of leading experts and neglecting of young talents may have negative effect as well.  The young may stay abroad and expect to return after they have well-established themselves;  however, the golden age for an individual’s innovation and academic achievement is right after the Ph.D graduation till the age 45.  Although the golden age in humanities and social sciences is not limited to this period, it is at least pivotal for a talent’s development and innovation ability.  An emphasis of science and engineering over humanities and social sciences may reduce the global competitiveness of Chinese humanities and social sciences.
Li Mei is from East China Normal University.
 Translated by Jiang Hong