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International relations

China snaps up Japanese scientists, sparking fears of technology outflow

Government must urgently improve domestic research environment to stem brain drain

Theoretical physics authority Toshitaka Kajino, right, joined the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in October 2016 at the invitation of the Chinese university. (Photo courtesy of Toshitaka Kajino)

TOKYO -- For Japanese scientists, China's attraction as an ideal place to pursue scientific research seems to only get stronger.

The trend is gathering steam as the Chinese government proactively invites top-caliber scholars from around the world. Japanese academics, meanwhile, often experience difficulty in finding posts at domestic universities and other institutions, underscoring an urgent need to improve how scholars, especially young ones, are treated in order to apply the brakes to an exodus of critical talent.

"I wanted to work in Japan but found no post," said Toru Takahata, who researches primate brains at China's Zhejiang University.

Takahata, 43, earned his doctorate from Japan's Graduate University for Advanced Studies in 2005 and began his research career as a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University in the U.S. in 2008. He sought a position in Japan starting around 2013 but to no avail.

He then looked abroad and landed a place at Zhejiang University in 2014. Research environments are favorable at the school, where Takahata has his own laboratory at a newly built institute. In addition to compensation, he has received the equivalent of 50 million yen ($478,652) for five years of research activity with no restrictions.

Although research achievement requirements are tough, "compensation to scholars for successful results is overwhelmingly higher than in Japan," Takahata said.

China has been attracting veteran Japanese academics as well.

Toshitaka Kajino, 64, professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, in October 2016 became the first director of the International Research Center for Big-Bang Cosmology and Element Genesis at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Known as an authority in theoretical physics, Kajino accepted an ardent invitation from the Chinese government that offered annual compensation higher than that for other professors working in China.

Simultaneously retaining his position in Japan, Kajino conducts half of his research work in China. "Teaching Chinese students is worthwhile as they are highly motivated," he said. 

The number of Japanese scholars working in China has steadily increased. Some 8,000 of them were in China as of October 2017, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. The number of Japanese academics who stayed in China for less than a month in fiscal year 2018 came to 18,460, up about 25% from fiscal 2014 and marking an increase for the fourth consecutive year, according to Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. 

By country, China has the second-largest number of Japanese scholars. But the number of Japanese academics in the U.S. and South Korea, ranked first and third, respectively, has decreased.

The increasing presence of academics from Japan in China has drawn attention as Japanese media recently reported that China's "Thousand Talents Plan," under which it recruits leading international experts in scientific research to harness their technological prowess, poses a national security threat to the country. And in the spring of 2016, Kajino was put on the plan's list of desired scholars.

There is no doubt that China is actively recruiting scholars. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China has more than 600 "overseas talent-recruitment workstations," including 46 in Japan. These are often run by groups sympathetic to Beijing, around the world. 

In many cases, scholars are officially invited to Chinese universities to work after relations are established with them during business or other short-term visits to China, said Miho Funamori, an associate professor at the National Institute of Informatics.

Experts point out that Japanese academics seek research bases in China despite the risk of technology outflow because of poor working conditions in Japan. "It seems that talented scholars who are struggling to secure research funds or suffering from the shortage of posts often receive offers from China," said Eisuke Enoki, a Japanese specialist familiar with the Chinese recruitment of talent. 

China set aside the equivalent of 28 trillion yen for its science and technology budget in fiscal 2018, compared with Japan's 3.8 trillion yen. Scholars below the age of 40 accounted for 23.4% of faculty at Japanese universities, the lowest on record, in 2016, testifying to the difficulty of younger people securing teaching and research positions.

The number of doctorate holders has continued to decrease in Japan. However, Takahata said, "The degree is highly popular in China as it guarantees high positions and pay."

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