Action Potential

Haihong Ye: Amazing changes in Chinese neuroscience over the past decade

[This is the inaugural post for a new feature at Action Potential. Periodically, we will provide insights from a regional correspondent on the interesting news, changes, or issues particularly affecting neuroscience in a particular location. Today’s post is from one of our Asian correspondents, Haihong Ye of the Institute for Biophysics in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She reflects on the dramatic changes that have occurred within Chinese neuroscience during her decade-long absence from this now-flourishing community. We examined these issues in our March editorial, but now invite you to provide your opinion. – N.G.]

Over the past 10 years, especially the last five, the whole world has been amazed by the Chinese economy. To me, however, the improvement in biological science research in China is much more amazing. In the summer of 1998 I left Beijing and went to the US to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. In 2007, after nine years of graduate study and post-doc training abroad, I came back to Beijing, seeking opportunities for further career development. What a difference some strong funding and visionary directives, not to mention a decade, can make.

Ten years ago, many of my classmates, having majored in physiology or biophysics, wanted to join neuroscience labs for their graduate studies. At that time, the Chinese neuroscience community was small, with a few labs scattered in the institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the major universities in Beijing and Shanghai. Most of the labs were restricted to electrophysiology, using very traditional animal models. The establishment of the Institute of Neuroscience (ION) by the CAS in Shanghai in November of 1999 marked the beginning of a new era for Chinese neuroscience research. Led by Dr. Mu-Ming Poo, ION is devoted to basic research in all areas of neuroscience, including molecular, cellular and developmental neurobiology, systems and computational neuroscience, as well as cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. Currently there are nineteen labs in ION, with a goal of reaching a steady-state of 30 labs by 2010. In 2005, the State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Science was formally established in the Institute of Biophysics of the CAS (IBP). They formed a strong team by combining labs utilizing a variety of systems (fly genetics, electrophysiology, fMRI and psychological approaches) to study various topics, including perception, attention, emotion and consciousness. Because of the increasing number of neuroscience labs, many universities have established, or are making plans to set up, centers for neuroscience. Consistent with the expanding neuroscience community, the number and the quality of publications is also increasing exponentially. Ten years ago, graduate students in China struggled to publish papers in Chinese journals. Nowadays, they are publishing in top international journals, making jealous their college classmates studying abroad.

What’s the driving force behind these amazing achievements? I think it’s the convergence of (1) government investment, (2) a backflow of internationally-trained scientists and (3) efforts made by the international science press:

(1) The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) is a major funding agency for basic science research in China. The budget for the NSFC was 1.85 billion yuan in the FY 1998 and 1999 combined. This number has increased to ~ 6 billion yuan in FY 2008 alone (1.8 billion will go to biology-related research), an average 21% annual increase for the past ten years. A similar, or even greater increase, has happened in other funding agencies, such as the Ministry of Science and Technology. Since 2007, the central government has stressed the importance of science and technology for the continued growth of the Chinese economy. We expect that government funding will continue to rise for a while longer.

(2) Many Chinese scholars, who went abroad in the 1980s or earlier have now established themselves as successful international scientists. Some have reached a stage in their career where they want to do more for Chinese society. China can now provide them with genuine opportunities to play leading roles in shaping the future of Chinese basic research. Some of them (Mu-Ming Poo, Xiaodong Wang, Yi Rao, Yigong Shi, just to name a few) have become the directors of the various institutes, centers and departments in China, implementing the infrastructure of a modern research institute onto the “old” Chinese system. On the other hand, younger scientists, like me, after completing a PhD or post-doctoral training abroad, are attracted by the exciting job opportunities and improved living standards back home.

(3) Another driving force also comes from abroad. In the past few years, major scientific publication groups have started to operate in China. They make efforts to help Chinese scholars publish in English, and provide services to help institutions raise their profile and international awareness of their top research.

The Chinese neuroscience community, like all other basic research communities, is in a fast growing phase and thus still faces a lot of challenges. Despite the increase in government funding, the grant size is generally small. In FY 2008, an average free application grant from the NSFC is ~300,000 yuan for 3 years, only ~US$14,000 a year. Most of the big grants (>1 million yuan) go to only a few institutes and labs in Beijing and Shanghai, a major reason for why these two cities have dominated the neuroscience landscape. One of my friends is a professor in Xiangya Medical School in Hunan province, one of the top five medical schools in China. It’s difficult for her to get grants from the NSFC. These labs live on small grants from local sources, and address questions that are not that “sexy”, very much like the situation in Beijing 10 years ago. As a developing country with a GDP per capita of just over US$2000, and millions of people still struggling to make ends meet, it’s difficult for the Chinese government to match the research budgets of Japan, Europe or the US. To support a large, productive and creative basic research community, we need to think of better ways to attract funding from other sources, such as through international collaboration, interest from pharmaceutical companies, and perhaps even from private donations or philanthropy from the Chinese nouveau-riche.

Another serious challenge for China is still the continuous loss of scientific personnel to the developed world. Although I argued above that this trend is beginning to reverse, each year, many talented and bright blossoming scientists still go to the US or European countries for graduate school or post-doctoral training. Until recently, only a small fraction of these individuals eventually came back. Although there are reasons to be optomistic regarding the reversal, does China need to do more in order to keep them home (e.g. playijng a more active role), or wait for this initial trickle of brain-drain-reversal to continue and (hopefully) broaden?

We must continue to promote the successful policies that have brought us here, while simultaneously establishing new and innovative strategies to nurture future growth. Conducting ground-breaking research, work that is uniquely Chinese, will undoubtedly contribute to the growth of the economy and the well-being of the Chinese people. The future looks bright and it is an exciting time to be a Chinese neuroscientist.


  1. Report this comment

    Meng Jun said:

    Expectedly, China would be a strong part in the world of neuroscience research over the next 10-20 years.

  2. Report this comment

    Elephantie said:

    Elegant summary of the development of Chinese neuroscience! So exciting!

    New to neuroscience, I wonder how is the Chinese change in neuroscience compared with that of the world? Despite the major leap the Chinese have made, I believe there is still a long way to go for the Chinese to catch up with the global level.

    Furthermore, why should we always place emphasis on the backflow of Chinese scholars? Why not attract the world’s great minds to China? This might be somewhat naive, though.

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    anpopo said:

    Yeah, an exciting article!

    When reading the part for funding problems, I have the same feelings. Only big institutes like those in Beijing and Shanghai can get relatively sufficient grants to support frontier research. Sometimes it’s not a problem of lacking ideas but lacking the money makes labs in small places handicap[ed in doing excellent work. Full of hope, but still a long way to go.

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    zuozuo said:

    Though I do not really understand neuroscience research in great detail, I have a special interest in it. China does not need to reach an elite World level, but needs to expose what real thoughts and contributions it can uniquely make.

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    xd said:

    Nice to read the article. Good luck with the research programs in China.

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    Noah Gray said:

    Interesting news out of NPG that pertains to point #3 made by Haihong. Please read this press release, released Wednesday. Basically, NPG has agreed to co-publish two Shanghai-based life sciences journals.

    Therefore, NPG is doing a nice job of expanding publishing collaborations with Asia-based scientific journals, which should be a strong asset to the research community there.

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    Bing Ye said:

    This insightful article successfully captures the excitment of neuroscience, and biomedical research for that matter, in today’s China.

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    Yan said:

    The article pointed out the most representive events and profiles of Chinese science today. Very remarkable!

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    Hyun-Woo Kim said:

    Wow…even on Nature the chinese propaganda squad works nice and smooth. Well done NPG.

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    Michael said:

    The big elephant in the room of course is China’s political system, and the effect it has on the development of a strong scientific infrastructure and culture.

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    Ke Song said:

    Having lived 4 years in China, I have verified that what Dr. Ye says is true, in general of many branches of Biology.

    One weak point that China has to overcome in the future is the dependence on these returned researchers:returnees like Dr. Ye should educate their younger colleagues to be more creative, in order to overcome an education strong on content but weak on stimulating originality.

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    Zeneng Wang said:

    A nice paper and a good start for China.