From Brain Drain to Brain Gain?

Re-Examining Academic Mobility of Chinese Returnees from Study Abroad

Harvard Ash Center
8 min readMay 31, 2019

Since the launch of the Open Door policy in 1978, China has sent over a million students and scholars abroad through the mid-2000s, only to have a mere quarter of them return home, raising concerns about a large scale “brain drain” scenario. The Chinese government has since countered with deliberate incentive programs to lure study abroad students back to China, often as a part of a “brain gain” scheme. There has been some discourse on why and how these students return back to China, but very little is known in terms of their post-return career trajectory. Former Asia Fellow Weichen Liu has conducted a study to gain a broader understanding of these Chinese returnees, which, in turn, provides us a more granular context in analyzing reverse migration trends in China.

Students graduate from Johns Hopkins in 2010 (Photo credit: Sakeeb Sabakka)

Written by: Weichen Liu, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Ash Center Asia Fellow 2017–2018

Predictions about worldwide shortages of high-skilled workers have generated numerous incentive policies designed by countries specifically to attract native talent home from overseas and to accommodate their post-return working environment to promote further economic growth. A recent McKinsey report forecasted that developed countries will face a labor shortage of 16–18 million college-educated workers by 2020. Along with increasingly tight immigration policies and declining investment in public funding within advanced economies, brain drain has been put under the spotlight but in a new form: “reverse brain drain,” in which highly skilled labor trained in developed economies move back into developing countries such as China.

Recent literature on international academic mobility has analyzed how and why there has been such reverse flow of western-trained researchers (e.g. what kind of incentive programs and other public policies have been implemented by their home countries) but very little is known in terms of domestic and institutional factors that affect the returnees’ career trajectory after they return to their home countries. To better understand the overall context of reverse migration or “brain gain,” we first need to uncover who the returnees are and analyze how they do after they return. This, in turn, will give us a better picture of how better to execute these incentive programs and government strategies for luring their best and the brightest to return home and help them advance their domestic careers.

Historically, China has witnessed a long-term brain drain, in which Chinese students with U.S. Ph.D. degrees are more inclined to stay there than students from other countries (Michael, 2018) (Figure 1). The past decade, however, has witnessed a sharp increase in the proportion of returnees, especially in China (Ministry of Education, 2017) (Figure 2). Some speculate that “brain circulation” is now on the rise, a circular movement of skilled labor across countries where a dispatching country can now be on the receiving end, and China may be leading such trend by luring their returnees.

Figure 1 Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2001–2015
Figure 2 Number of overseas students and returnees in China, 2006–2016

This study collects a sample of 1,780 Thousand Young Talent Program recipients who were funded between 2011 and 2015. We trace their CVs, faculty websites, Google Scholar citations, and LinkedIn accounts to manually identify their personal characteristics, educational background, and some movement-related variables. Specifically, we manually collected all the scientists’ education information from undergraduate university to doctoral university and the graduation year, all the institutions they once studied or worked since doctoral university and corresponded moving year, age, gender, hometown, and other-related personal characteristic variables.

We first focus on the granted age distribution of Chinese overseas young scientists. Granted age is an important factor that could reveal more in the presented study. The aim of the Thousand Youth Talent Program is to attract high-level young overseas talents to work on key areas to promote science and technology innovation, with a cut off age of 40. Thus, granted age becomes a critical factor in our analysis. Figure 4 shows that the maximum and minimum funding ages are 41 and 27 individually, and mean funded age is 34. And most recipients are concentrated in 33.

Figure 4 Age distribution of Chinese overseas young scientists

In this section, we analyze the ratio of young foreign-educated Chinese scholars by the type of institution in which they are currently employed. We investigate whether the institution type (grouped by ranking), academic field, or location affects the ratio of young Chinese overseas academics it attracts.

We find that the ratio of young Chinese scholars returning to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, including the University of Science and Technology in China, is slightly higher than that of other categories (except “Other institutions”). Among 1780 recipients, 458 young researchers choose the Chinese Academy of Sciences system, but 347 and 242 scholars prefer Tsinghua University and Peking University or other C9 League Universities as their top choice of return institution[1] (Figure 9). Other institutions also account for a large proportion.

Figure 9 Return Institution type

Figure 10, below, shows the ratio of China-born, foreign-educated young scientists by the academic field in which they work. We adopt the unified classification of the National Natural Science Foundation. Among all subjects, Life Science is the field most open to returnees, with a high volume of 468, accounting for approximately 26.3% of the total. Life Science majors include basic biology, agricultural science, medicine and pharmacology. The second discipline is engineering and materials science, which has 420 returnees and accounts for 23.6% of the total. of the total. Other top disciplines with the highest number of young returnees are mathematical sciences, chemistry and information science. Geology and environmental geosciences hold the smallest proportion.

Figure 10 Field statistics

For further analysis, we observe how the proportion of fields changes over time. From Figure 10, we found that engineering and material science are the most popular majors in the beginning of the program in 2011. Considering the year effect, we find that life science is the emphasized area in all three years, far exceeding other fields. Chemistry shows a little growing trend in recent years, although not so popular among young scientists in the beginning phase.

The role of foreign education is important for training academics in prestigious universities. In this section, we analyze doctoral training programs of elite academics to see where they come from and what the qualifications are of these returnees. From Table 4, we find that almost 2 in 3 young scientists obtained their Ph.D. abroad. Importantly, most foreign doctoral education is provided by relatively few countries. A total of 710 (39.9%) foreign-educated young scholars obtain their PhDs in the U.S. and 100 (5.62%) in Europe. Additionally, 68 (3.82%) of the total obtained their doctoral degrees in the UK. Surprisingly, the results show that approximately 1 in 3 (675, 37.92%) returnees gained their doctoral degrees in China.

Table 4 Location of doctor education program statistics

We also consider the ranking of doctoral universities based on the ARWU ranking as a proxy for academic capability (table 5). We see that the number of young scholars who obtain their Ph.D. from the world’s top 50 universities is distributed evenly, with 8.09% from the top 1–10, 8.54% from top 22–25, 8.6% from top 26–50 and 15.67% from top 51–100. Notably, the majority of returnees attended doctoral programs at universities ranked in the range of 51–100 (15.67%), 101–200 (17.53%) and even below 200 (22.19%). There is still a certain proportion of young scientists whose doctoral programs are unranked according to the ARWU ranking system. We further determined that most of these returnees graduated from the Chinese Academy Science System, which is not ranked in ARWU but has high-level training and research capability.

Table 5 Rank of Doctoral programs

In general, the analysis exploits a rich dataset of China-born, foreign-educated young scientists in contemporary Chinese academia. We collected a list of 1780 young Chinese-American scholars who are attracted by the Thousand Youth Talent Program from 2011 to 2015 and analyze five aspects, including personal characteristics, return institutions, doctoral education backgrounds, pre-return institutions, and pre-return position. The results show that the current major force of young returnees in academia are scientists aged 37–39, while most of them receive their grant by the program at the age of 33. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has become the most welcoming institution for these returning talents. Life science and engineering and materials science are the top two fields in which these young scientists show interest in the domestic job market. For the doctoral training program analysis, there is only a slight difference between talent who hold Chinese doctoral degrees and U.S. doctoral degrees. However, the U.S. has become the largest talent-exporting country, greater than Europe or the U.K., when we consider the last institution where these returnees worked abroad.

The results of these findings provide granular insights to help complement further studies on issues pertaining to China’s “brain drain” and “brain gain.” The increasing inflow of returnees seems to indicate that foreign-trained Chinese talents help support China’s ongoing attempts at brain gain, as more academic institutions become open to welcoming returning talents, particularly in the life science and engineering/materials science fields. It is hoped that these foreign-trained Chinese returnees help contribute to China’s international competitiveness for knowledge diffusion and global capital in the longer run.

Weichen Liu was a China Public Policy Visiting Research Fellow at the Ash Center specializing in the economics of science and innovation policy. She conducted her Ph.D study at the School of International and Public Affairs at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. In addition, Weichen received her masters degree in human resources management from the Business School at University of Southampton with Distinction honor. Her research interests focus on global scientific mobility and scientific productivity. She endeavors to uncover the black box of scientific creativity in China.

[1] C9 league is an alliance of 9 prestigious Chinese Universities selected by the government which is initiated in October, 2009, including Tsinghua University, Peking University, Fudan University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Nanjing University, University of Science and Technology of China, Zhejiang University, Xi’an Jiao Tong University and Harbin Institute of Technology



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