Liu He is a busy man. As if America’s trade war is not enough to occupy the vice-premier in charge of the national trade and technology policies, one of China’s premier nuclear research facilities has suffered a massive brain drain. More than 90 researchers, most with PhDs, have resigned en masse from the Institute of Nuclear Energy Safety Technology (INEST) in the eastern city of Hefei. As a result, Liu has ordered an investigation. In a parallel probe, the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences is looking into problems at the institute. Any mass resignation at a large public research facility raises concern. That INEST is one of the nation’s key nuclear research centres is especially worrying. The institute is devoted to the research and development of advanced nuclear energy and safety technology, which cover areas such as neutron physics, fission and fusion energy and their extended nuclear technology applications. It’s not clear what actually went wrong. Mainland news reports have cited causes such as poor management, lack of research funding, infighting over access to facilities and office space, and poaching of scientific talent by the private sector. It’s more than likely a combination of those factors. Vice-premier demands answers on Chinese nuclear institute brain drain As the private technology sector takes flight on the mainland, with the full encouragement of the central government, the demand for top talent is rising rapidly. This has caused competition between the publicly funded research sector and private tech companies offering pay premiums. In 2018, for example, a top rocket scientist who left a state-owned aerospace firm to work for a private company sparked criticism that state-owned companies were failing to retain talent with proper incentives. Adding to the pay gaps is the highly hierarchical nature of state-run research institutions, where seniority is still a key factor determining promotion. Of course, even in Western countries, public institutions rarely pay researchers the same as private companies. But they often offer other inducements, such as access to cutting-edge or secret research. Investigators looking into INEST need to find out what happened and to reverse the “brain drain”. The incident should be a wake-up call for state institutions to offer better management and incentives to retain top talent. The world is in a technology arms race. China must nourish and treat scientists well.