May 20, 2011

Twenty years ago, most molecular-science PhD graduates in the United States went on to start up their own labs at universities across the country. These labs drive innovation and keep the United States globally competitive. Today, however, only a handful of my friends will go on to run their own labs, though more would like to. Some go into industry or consulting or law. Others leave science altogether.

As public funding for science and technology shrinks, it just isn’t possible for people who want to become scientists in America to actually become scientists. So when a friend of mine who recently received her PhD in molecular biology asked for some career advice, the answer was easy. Go to China, I told her.

At one time it was common for American scientists to go abroad. Usually, they went to Europe because of better expertise and better funding. Then the Cold War came along and jolted American policymakers into action, producing stunning results. Public investments in science and technology revolutionized everything from medicine to microprocessors. According to Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, more than 50 percent of U.S. economic growth since World War II has come from science and technology. But today, many scientists, particularly young scientists, face a public funding situation that is dire.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told senators this month that for every six grant applications the agency receives, “five of them are going to go begging.” Will this tough funding environment force American scientists to start looking for jobs in other countries? If they do, there won’t be any shortage of options.

The global science landscape is radically different from what it was when I started graduate school 10 years ago. Opportunities for cutting-edge science are sprouting in many other countries. China stands out. But there are plenty of others. India, Brazil and Singapore built world-class research institutes. Saudi Arabia aggressively recruits researchers for its King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. With a staggering $10 billion endowment there — larger than MIT’s — American scientists no longer need to suffer through Boston’s endless winters. Not to be outdone, Abu Dhabi opened the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in 2009. These emerging powers have a voracious appetite for good scientists. So they’re trying to poach ours.

I spent nearly two years doing molecular biology research in China. I have worked at the National Laboratory for Agrobiotechnology and at Peking University in Beijing. The Chinese are serious about science. Government spending on research and development has increased 20 percent each year over the past decade. Even in the midst of the financial crisis of 2008-09, China continued to bet big on science and technology. China now spends $100 billion annually on research and development. The Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, estimates that by 2013, Chinese scientists will author more articles in international science journals than American scientists do.

Chinese labs are cutting-edge intellectual melting pots of Chinese scientists trained in the East and in the West. This environment of creativity and hard work will produce big breakthroughs. Chinese universities aggressively recruit foreign scientists. The start-up packages can be generous and in some cases comparable to what a young faculty member receives in this country. In the future, China might be a better option for U.S. scientists desperate to fund their research.

What does it mean for the United States if we lose some of our scientific talent? The infusion of American ingenuity could be the missing catalyst for a country such as China to leapfrog America in space technology or the development of new weapons. Our own economic success and security depended on foreign talent such as Albert Einstein, Edward Teller (who developed the hydrogen bomb), and Werner von Braun (who led the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped the United States win the race to the moon). Would we have been as competitive if they had decided instead to work in Russia or China?

Talented scientists in this country often fall through the cracks because they can’t get funding. Agencies are deluged with applications and often have to reject as many as 90 percent of the proposals they receive. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to deteriorate further as budget cuts limit the resources available for research. So I’ve started encouraging my friends to think more creatively about their careers. Go to China, I tell them. Or Singapore or Brazil or the Middle East. If the United States can’t fund its scientific talent, find a country that will.

Matthew Stremlau, a graduate of Haverford College and Harvard University, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard and MIT.