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Foreign Researchers Begin to Make Their Mark
As one of the country's poorer provinces, Yunnan in southwestern China has struggled to balance economic development and conservation. “Few researchers in China are equipped with the necessary expertise or perspective” to help Yunnan officials craft sound environmental policies, says Xu Jianchu, a conservation biologist at the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). That's where Edward Grumbine comes in. With more than 2 decades of experience as an environmental policy expert, Grumbine came to Kunming from Prescott College in Arizona on a 1-year fellowship and just reupped for a second year. He and Xu are trying to persuade local officials to take a holistic approach toward land-use management and to enlighten them on the perils of unrestrained hydropower development. 

China has been going all out to persuade ethnic Chinese researchers stationed abroad to return and bolster science in their motherland (Science, 31 July 2009, p. 534). Conditions in China are improving so quickly, research chiefs say, that labs are now wooing top overseas scientists, no matter their ethnicity. Last month, CAS held a workshop here to assess a pair of fellowship programs launched in 2009 to bring non-Chinese scientists to CAS labs. Thus far the programs have supported 179 postdocs and 477 professors, paying annual stipends as high as 500,000 yuan ($77,000).

At the meeting, Grumbine and 69 other foreign researchers on long-term stints hailed the fellowships. China, they say, offers a number of attractions. Some scientists came here because there is ample funding for research and new instruments. Others followed partners to China or say they are curious about the rising power.

Whatever their reason for flocking to China, foreign fellows have had an impact. For starters, they have helped catalyze interdisciplinary studies that are sorely lacking in China, says Zhou Zhonghe, director of CAS's Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology here. One example is Romain Amiot, a foreign postdoc who came here in 2006 to reconstruct ancient climates based on evidence gleaned from the teeth and bones of dinosaurs. “Nobody had used our materials to study past climate,” Zhou says. Fellows also spark connections. “Behind each fellow is a network of overseas expertise that is valuable for academic exchange,” Xu says. Some visitors supervise graduate students, write papers, and edit English-language Chinese journals. “This will help to boost language skills and educate young generations of Chinese scientists,” Zhou says.

Not all is rosy. Researchers say CAS should offer more fellowships and that these should permit longer stays and include funds for research materials. CAS should also host more top-notch conferences so foreigners can become better acquainted with Chinese science, says David Yuen, a geologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a CAS fellow here at the academy's Graduate University.

Fellows have also vented frustration over the difficulty of getting materials, such as cell lines and transgenic animals, in and out of China. Other concerns are poor data sharing and weak enforcement of intellectual-property rights. To lure more top researchers to China, says Zheng Chunmiao, a hydrologist here at Peking University, “these obstacles must be overcome.”

Most fellows say they have had a gratifying experience. Last year, Thorjørn Larssen, a geochemist at the University of Oslo, won a 4-month fellowship to study mercury pollution and mitigation policies at CAS's Institute of Geochemistry in Guiyang. China is responsible for more than a third of all mercury released into the environment. “What we do in China matters to the rest of the world,” Larssen says. He helped initiate a provincewide survey of mercury pollution and human exposure that he and his Chinese colleagues hope to scale up nationwide. For scientists who are game to take on such challenges, CAS has rolled out the red carpet.

(Source: Science)
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