China’s Young Thousand Talents (YTT) programme has succeeded in encouraging high-calibre, early-career Chinese scientists to return home after stints abroad. That is according to an analysis of the programme, which was set up in 2010 to entice leading scientists under 40 to work in China. The study also found that the YTT has boosted the productivity of those scientists who return to China – although very few non-Chinese researchers have taken advantage of the initiative (Science 10.1126/science.abq1218).

The YTT targets science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars working overseas by offering them generous income subsidies and start-up grants to relocate to China. To examine whether the approach has worked, a team led by applied mathematician Dongbo Shi from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China analysed the productivity of 339 Chinese scientists from the YTT’s first four cohorts before and after they came home.

The authors found that the returning scientists were among the most productive early-career researchers, ranking in the top 10th to 15th percentile for productivity when comparing them with scientists in the US who have Chinese surnames. Once settled in China, however, the returnees’ productivity was found to be 27% higher than overseas scientists with Chinese surnames.

The returnee scientists were found to produce fewer first-authored papers than their peers. However, they published significantly more papers in which they are named as the last author – a marker of who is the principal investigator of the work.

The authors suggest this is because YTT researchers are more likely to be running their own research groups than their overseas peers who had stayed outside of China.

Room for improvement

The authors claim that the productivity gains seen by returning scientists is linked to a greater access to funding as well as the ability to create larger research teams when they return to China. The researchers also say that their results show the potential of talent programmes to attract scientists and improve a nation’s research productivity.

The difficulty of attracting scientists who are more established, however, suggests there is still room for improvement in the YTT programme, the team says. Although open to any nationality, few non-Chinese researchers have taken advantage of the initiative.

The researchers also note that the initiative only uses a small proportion – less than 0.5% – of China’s academic research and development budget, so given its success, they advise that the programme could be scaled up. “As China continues to invest in higher education and academic talent, we can expect more Western-trained Chinese students to return to China,” they write.

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