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In the decades since Deng Xiaoping declared science and technology to be of crucial importance, thousands of Chinese trained in the sciences have gone abroad as graduate students or, more usually, as postdocs. Most have gone to the United States, some to Europe. Many have stayed on, taking research jobs; some have returned. To China, they represent an immense and invaluable resource – for their particular skills and specialties but even more for their Westernized attitudes, their absorption of the ethos of modern science. The Chinese government has recognized their potential and is urgently trying to induce more to return.

Here are three Chinese scientists. Each of them did postdoctoral work abroad, then returned. Each is at the middle level of the profession, leading a laboratory, working intensively with a relatively small group. They are representative of others I met as well.

In Changsha, capital of Hunan province, in south-central China, where the summers and the food are blazing, the Central South University was formed in 2000 by merger of a university of technology, a medical university, and, of all things, the Changsha Railway University. The medical component is now the Xiangya School of Medicine. Cao Ya (her family name is pronounced Tsow) is deputy dean and director of the medical school. She has an MD and a PhD and spent five years in the United States at the National Cancer Institute, outside of Washington.

She is also a deputy mayor of Changsha. A stocky woman, she is direct, informed, briskly intelligent, with a sense of humor, and formidably well prepared. We talked at an elaborate dinner with half a dozen of her colleagues; we met the next morning in her office with a graduate student attending to help with translation.

“The major scientific program running right now in China is this one, called 97-3 Program,” Professor Cao said. “A major huge program to catch up with the scientific development of the whole world. Started in 1997, March. This program is for basic research. According to the needs of the nation.” Technological applications? Or basic science? “Both,” she said with a sharp nod. The goal is split in two? “Yes,” she said. “I think that the major scientific program is the whole-world program. Not just for China. The second is the urgent requirement for our country’s social and economic development.”

The 97-3 Program concentrates research in six areas, agricultural biotechnology, energy, informatics, natural resources and the environment, population and health, and materials science. Cao’s own concern is with population and health. In this area the research is divided into 20 fields. She took me through them with the aid of a 33-page position paper she had put together in anticipation of my visit. The list is diverse, the projects ambitious. Yet even the most basic research – in stem cells, for example – has been defined in terms of immediate applications.

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