(The Washington Post) Like many ambitious young scientists, José Pastor-Pareja came to the United States to supercharge his career. At Yale University, he worked in cutting-edge laboratories, collaborated with experts in his field and published in prestigious journals.
José Pastor-Pareja in his lab in Beijing. (Yan Cong/For The Washington Post)
But the allure of America soon began to wear off. The Spanish geneticist struggled to renew his visa and was even detained for two hours of questioning at a New York City airport after he returned from a trip abroad. In 2012, he made the surprising decision to leave his Ivy League research position and move to China.
“It is an opportunity not many take,” Pastor-Pareja said. But the perks were hard to resist — a lucrative signing bonus, guaranteed research funding, ample tech staff and the chance to build a genetics research center from scratch.
After decades of American dominance, Chinese science is ascendant, and it is luring scientists like Pastor-Pareja away from the United States. Even more China-born scientists are returning from abroad to a land of new scientific opportunity.
The United States spends half a trillion dollars a year on scientific research — more than any other nation on Earth — but China has pulled into second place, with the European Union third and Japan a distant fourth.
China is on track to surpass the United States by the end of this year, according to the National Science Board. In 2016, annual scientific publications from China outnumbered those from the United States for the first time.
“There seems to be a sea change in how people are talking about Chinese science,” said Alanna Krolikowski, a Chinese science expert at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Foreign observers, many of whom were once condescending, now “are rather in awe at what the Chinese policies have accomplished.”
The scientific advances are a small piece of China’s larger ambitions. President Xi Jinping aims to supplant the United States as the world’s economic superpower within three decades. In October, Xi vowed to produce “a world-class army by 2050.”
Meanwhile, China is spending more on infrastructure than the United States or Europe, and the middle class has ballooned — making relocation more attractive.
“More and more people keep coming, that’s for sure,” Pastor-Pareja said. “Right now, China is the best place in the world to start your own laboratory.”