As the Chinese government invests increasing amounts of money into scientific research, and biotech multinationals rush to open offices in China, opportunities for scientists are exploding. Two cities stand at the forefront of Chinese science. Beijing, close to the center of power, offers more in terms of academia, government jobs, and research. By contrast Shanghai, China’s commercial hub, is home to the lion’s share of biotech. Chinese scientists who studied abroad are flocking to both cities to contribute to China’s scientific effort, a key pillar of its socioeconomic development. International scientists, seeing a chance to further their careers in an expanding market fueled by vast manpower and funding, and eager for a cultural adventure, are beginning to join them. China is a land of diverse opportunities and myriad challenges; from those already there, objectives, ideas, and advice vary. One thing is certain: The world’s most populous nation and second-largest economy is fast becoming a global hub for scientists of the future. By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Zhu Yi Zhun, dean of the School of Pharmacy at Shanghai’s Fudan University, is one of China’s most successful returnee scientists. In 2009, his status was cemented by winning the National Award for Innovative Research Work of the Returnees from the Chinese State Council. After a promising career abroad, Zhu had come back to help spur the Chinese economy via science and to further his own career.

“Coming back to China gave huge opportunities, especially for drug discovery,” says Zhu, who completed postdoctoral training at the Institute of Pharmacology at Germany’s University of Kiel. His work experience includes stints at the University of Washington in Seattle and the Hoechst Marion Roussel Pharma AG (now Sanofi-Aventis) in Singapore. “The Chinese government has started the drug discovery program for the last few years with big funding.”

Zhu, who holds several U.S., Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), and Chinese patents for new drugs and has seen one cardioprotective drug successfully launched in Singapore, received grants for more than 160 million yuan (over US$25 million) in China. Such generous funding, combined with the prospect of furthering science in an exciting, emerging market, was hard to turn down.

Opportunities and Growth

China is the world’s fastest-growing economy. As the country expands its scientific endeavors to match its economic prowess, many Chinese nationals are returning home—with a significant number heading to Beijing and Shanghai—to take advantage of ballooning opportunities. A career in China is also attracting a number of international scientists who are tempted by a cultural adventure combined with access to ample funding.

The impetus comes from the very top. The Chinese government regards science as an important solution to China’s problems and an engine for the country’s expansion. Unlike many other countries, China has the muscle, funds, and, increasingly, talent to ensure science remains a priority. Above all, China is aiming to transform itself from a labor-based economy to an innovation-orientated nation by 2020, as outlined in its 2006–2020 Medium and Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology.

The numbers speak for themselves. In figures released during this year’s annual National People’s Congress (NPC), China announced in a draft budget that it would put aside 32.45 billion yuan (US$5.14 billion) for basic research in 2012—a 26% rise from the previous year. Government spending overall on science and technology is due to rise 12.4% to 228.54 billion yuan (US$36.23 billion). China is now the world’s second leading producer of research. Only the United States beats China in the volume of scientific papers published—and predictions show that it could overtake the United States by as early as 2013.

“Chinese science budgets are expanding, not static or declining like in many other major countries,” says Ben Bravery, founder of Kexue Communications, a Beijing-based science communications firm that acts as a bridge between China and the West, working with Chinese researchers, organizations, and educational institutes to transfer knowledge. “Universities and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) are playing a bigger part on the global stage, faculties are growing, and scientific output is growing too. CAS comprises around 80,000 people—that is enormous compared to other top scientific agencies. Scientists that emerged from the Cultural Revolution are beginning to retire and are making way for younger talent to rise through the ranks and also for overseas Chinese to return to researching in China.”

Scientific Culture

China’s two leading cities, Beijing and Shanghai, are both hubs for scientific research. Yet they demonstrate significant differences in scientific culture.

Beijing, China’s capital, houses the country’s two top universities, Tsinghua University and Peking University (known colloquially as Beida). As the seat of the government, Beijing is the location chosen for many academic conferences, meetings, and grant reviews and is China’s political, cultural, and educational center. By contrast Shanghai, located in the Yangtze River delta, is China’s commercial and financial center. While Shanghai also contains many top institutions (including the renowned Fudan University), it is home to the lion’s share of the country’s biotechnology companies.

Babak Javid

“Shanghai has traditionally had a greater commercial focus and I’d say it is natural that this has spread to modes of scientific inquiry and their outputs,” comments Kexue Communications’ Bravery. “Beijing is home to the two most well-respected universities and also houses the majority of the CAS. The vast majority of national institutes, academy bodies, and key research centers are located in Beijing. The CAS does an enormous amount of pure and basic research, and so naturally, most of this takes place in Beijing.”

Despite this, Bravery states that the biggest difference between the two hubs comes down to lifestyle. Both cities are vast metropolises but they offer a very different living experience. While the northern capital suffers from pollution issues and traffic jams, it is considered more “Chinese” and is renowned for its music, art, performance arts, and historical heritage. Shanghai, by contrast, is a “softer,” more international experience, with a larger expat community, a myriad of international restaurants, and an emphasis on fashion, finance, and technology. As the mainland’s most globalized city, Shanghai is a place where many foreigners feel more at home.

Cultural Challenges

Zhu is not the only scientist to have given up high-profile opportunities elsewhere in favor of a career in China. Before arriving in China, British-Iranian infectious diseases specialist Babak Javid was offered a faculty position at a top British university. Javid, who did his B.A, Ph.D., and M.B. B.Chir. at Cambridge in the United Kingdom and was a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, turned down the offer. Instead, he took up a post as a professor at the Tsinghua University School of Medicine in Beijing (he remains a visiting senior fellow at Cambridge) and became the first non-Chinese member of the faculty. (A second international faculty member, a Spanish biologist, is arriving in September.)

Javid signed up for a six-year tenure-track position and moved to China with his wife and small daughter in 2012. He was attracted by startup grant funding that was by far the most generous he received (well in excess of US$1 million over five years) and the intellectual and cultural stimulation of working in a different environment.

“For some time as a family we’ve been thinking about doing something different,” says Javid. “My wife is very mobile (a piano teacher), but I didn’t want to compromise my scientific career. I saw an ad for a job here. And on a whim I spoke to my wife about it. She said: ‘This is it, this is what we need to be doing.’” China, Javid enthuses, is a “hugely exciting place to be—that’s part of the draw. You can’t come here without a sense of adventure.”

Despite this, the challenges are myriad. In Beijing, where the architecture is mostly traditional Chinese and Stalinist Soviet, a crucial criterion for Javid was to find a home with a Western-style kitchen and bathroom for his family. Language is also a challenge. Javid’s lab personnel speak English, but as a non-Chinese speaker he needs help from local intermediaries for day-to-day tasks such as writing grants for government funds and ordering DNA for sequencing. Cultural differences are apparent from small inconveniences (there is no distilled water on tap in Tsinghua’s labs) to larger attitudes. Science in China is rigidly hierarchal: Positions of authority are lionized and lab members are treated as employees who are expected to do long hours. “Something I really struggle with is showing my students that spending 24 hours in a lab is not efficient or useful,” says Javid, who adds that students often need more “hand-holding” than their Western counterparts.

“Don’t think China is America with slightly different food—it’s not,” he warns. “Take the challenges and maximize the opportunities, otherwise you are going to get frustrated.”

Growing Pains

Despite these two cities demonstrating rapid growth, the science sector in China is racked with growing pains. Bigger does not necessarily translate as better. The explosion of the number of scientific papers published is one example. Pressure to produce papers has led to plagiarism and faking of data in some cases. (In 2009 the UK-based journal Acta Crystallographica Section E was forced to retract dozens of papers by Chinese scientists who had used falsified data, many of which were produced in Chinese universities.) Quality is often considered second to quantity.

Photo provided by Chen Xiaoya
“SIBS is making efforts to raise postdoc salaries and has established postdoc scholarships for partnering with international pharmaceutical corporations to encourage research excellence of postdocs at SIBS. And with China’s favorable policies for attracting talent, more and more Chinese scientists have returned.” —Chen Xiaoya

The system for evaluating scientific research is to blame, says Chen Xiaoya, president of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences (SIBS). “The evaluating system has too much pressure—there is too much emphasis on the number of publications [and in] which journal you publish the paper,” he explains.

Chen cites grant applications as another cause for concern, stating that too many resources go to a small number of good scientists. “On the one hand this is good; on the other hand this may also hurt those scientists who receive too much budget. Too much budget for young scientists will lead them to do too many things and not focus. We also need more transparency. Since the government is increasing funding, how [should they] distribute it?” he asks.

Another problem is that in many areas of life science, the research and postdoctoral salaries in America and Europe are higher than those in China. “But changes are also happening,” says Chen. “For instance, SIBS is making efforts to raise postdoc salaries and has established postdoc scholarships for partnering with international pharmaceutical corporations to encourage research excellence of postdocs at SIBS. And with China’s favorable policies for attracting talent, more and more Chinese scientists have returned.”

Growth of Biotech

Shanghai and Beijing are both strong contenders in the biotech industry. “My impression is that at this particular juncture, there is more drug development going on within companies in Shanghai than Beijing,” says Rahim Rezaie, a research fellow at the University of Toronto. But he adds: “The biotech/pharmaceutical industry is highly globalized and these geographic distinctions are becoming less significant over time.”

Zhao Ruilin spent 10 years in the United States where he earned a Ph.D. in medical engineering and medical physics from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and an MBA degree from the Wharton Business School. The Chinese-born scientist became head of business development of Life Technologies Greater China in 2012. “I always say the major reason I came back is a great, great opportunity,” says Zhao, speaking from Life Technologies’ Shanghai office.

The Chinese biotech industry is growing at a rapid pace. Areas such as health care, biofuel, epidemic control, biological agriculture, biological energy, and food safety have become top priorities for leadership as China’s middle class balloons. As part of its innovation drive, the government is focusing funds on encouraging applied research and pioneering new therapies. In 2010, the value of Chinese biological output surpassed 1.5 trillion yuan (US$236.8 billion), according to the Ministry of Science and Technology.

“There has been tremendous growth in R&D infrastructure in China in recent years, much of it financed from government sources,” says Rezaie, who is a coauthor of a 2008 study titled “Chinese Health Biotech and the Billion-Patient Market.” “Over the past few years, most major multinational companies have increased their investments in the sector substantially and are increasingly engaged in R&D activities. Those have not been prevalent in China until recent years. The sector that I see as most exciting is research and discovery, broadly innovation type of jobs.”

Discoveries and development activities in biotech tend to be fairly similar across the globe, says Rezaie. Yet China offers a unique workplace and career opportunities for biotech scientists.

“If you want to have a real understanding of one of the world’s most important markets, arguably the most important in five to 10 years, you should come to China.” —Siddhartha Kadia

“One difference is that there are certain things you can do in China that you can’t in major industrialized countries,” he explains. Examples include gene technology, where regulations in China are not as stringent as in the United States. China has made crucial breakthroughs in the field, including creating the world’s first commercialized gene therapy product, Gendicine. The modernization of Traditional Chinese Medicine is another growing field in biotech that is distinctive to China.

Opportunities are myriad. Life Technologies is an example of one multinational company that is expanding rapidly in China. Life Technologies operates in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and today has nearly 1,000 employees in Greater China. In 2011, Life Technologies Greater China grew its revenue by double digits and hired over 300 new staff. This year, they are planning to hire another 200.

“If you want to have a real understanding of one of the world’s most important markets, arguably the most important in five to 10 years, you should come to China,” says Siddhartha Kadia, president of Life Technologies Greater China. “This is the market in life sciences and health care that is going to grow the fastest, more than any other country in the world. Does that mean things are easy? No.”

Kadia emphasizes that employees who come from training or previous careers abroad can find fitting into a Chinese business environment difficult. “My observations have been that if somebody comes here expecting a very similar approach to work, that could be quite challenging,” he says. “You have to be a problem solver, but in a very different way, to work here. In many ways, government regulations are actually still in the state of definition, so it’s a great opportunity for some to shape the landscape, but for others it could be very confusing. You need to be more open minded.”

Zhao agrees. One of the largest challenges for the scientist is negotiating the business landscape in China. “I think there are always some differences in terms of culture and how to get business done—the same thing can be said in the same way and carry different meanings. Even if I was born in this country!” he states. Despite this, he says, it is worth it. “It’s an explosive opportunity that I wouldn’t be able to get in the United States.”

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Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore is a freelance writer based in Beijing, China.