While the bitter US-China trade war appears to be coming to an end this year, researchers now report that a growing number of Chinese scientists working in the US and other parts of the world are returning to their homeland to enhance China's research productivity.
The Ohio State University researchers found that more than 16,000 foreign-trained Chinese scientists have returned to their homeland since Beijing has opened up to international engagement.
More than 4,500 left the US for China in 2017 -- nearly double the number who left in 2010, helping grow the country into a scientific powerhouse. According to the researchers, it is still in America's best interest to try to retain as many of China's best scholars as possible and be welcoming to those who visit.
"If we lose that attraction, if we discourage people from coming here, it will take a toll on the US scientific system," said Caroline Wagner, associate professor in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University.
"In our lifetime, China has joined the global scientific community to become world-class in a number of critical fields, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and materials science," Wagner added."As more of their researchers return home, that rise is going to continue".
For the study, the researchers used a scientific publisher's (Elsevier) database that allowed them to track researchers based on their publications in scientific journals. The authors traced the paths of Chinese authors who first published in China and then subsequently in a different country, or, first published abroad and then in China, to track individual mobility.
Results showed that the number of Chinese researchers going to the US is larger than the number going to Europe. Chinese scientists are more likely to return to their home from Europe than from the US.
"The most elite Chinese scientists are more likely to stay in the US than go home -- and that's good for the US," Wagner said in a paper published in the journal Science and Public Policy.
"But increasingly, we found that people are going back. The US has been lucky that many top scientists have stayed. But China has programmes to attract them back to their homeland," she noted.
Overall, Wagner and her colleagues found that 12 per cent of studies published by researchers in China were by those who had worked in other countries - and that is probably an underestimation. More importantly, those who worked abroad and returned to China published more high-impact research than scientists who didn't work abroad.
"Once they go home, those who worked elsewhere are more productive at the international level than people who stayed in China," she said.
In previous research, Wagner has found that the more open a country is to cross-country scientific cooperation, the stronger its scientific impact. That's also one reason why China is fine with the fact that many of its scientists stay in the United States, Europe or elsewhere.
"Chinese leaders value connections. It is a way to create linkages with the worldwide scientific community," she said. A variety of indicators suggest that China's science and technology capabilities are on a sharply rising trajectory.
China's spending on research and development as tracked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has increased faster than overall economic growth in the country. China ranked second in the world in the number of papers published in indexed scientific journals in 2017.