Tensions In US-China Relations To Impact Scientists' Productivity

“What we really wanted to focus on within this paper is what has been the impact on US science,” said Roberts. “And we wanted to try to quantify it.”

Tensions In US-China Relations To Impact Scientists' Productivity

A study showed that tensions in US-China relations impacted scientists’ productivity, especially those with previous ties to China. These impacts were significant in fields that have US-China collaboration.

On Dec 9, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics and the Stanford Center on China’s Economy and Institutions (SCCEI) hosted an event, titled ‘Have US China Tensions Hurt American Innovation?’ The event highlighted a study The Impact of Tensions in US-China relations on US Science, published this year.

Authors Molly Roberts and Ruixue Jia, professors at the University of California, San Diego, shared their work at the event.

“We know that politics influences science, but we know that open science is also important, and this is when we start to come into tension. So, this has come up a lot recently because of tensions in US-China relations and science,” Roberts said.

Roberts said that there is a growing concern in Washington that the US government, companies, and universities have helped drive the rapid growth of China’s high-tech sector, which has led to the detriment of the US national interests and security.

Believing bilateral competition deepens, the US government was implementing and maintaining more restrictive policies on research and technology to keep lead in key technologies, including constraining commercial sales and investments in previously permitted areas.

“What we really wanted to focus on within this paper is what has been the impact on US science,” said Roberts. “And we wanted to try to quantify it.”

Roberts mentioned two representative actions of the US government. First is that the US Department of Justice started the China Initiative in November 2018, “countering national security threats from China”. The initiative ended in February 2022 after protests from China, Asian Americans, the scientific community, and even within the US government.

Second is that the US National Institution of Health (NIH) sent a letter to American institutions about “foreign interference and research and sort of starting investigations about foreign interference and research” in August 2018.

These investigations were not focused exclusively on China, but “93% of those investigated whose source foreign support was from China”. Until June 2020, hundreds of scholars were investigated, and 54 researchers lost their positions because of this action.

In the study, the researchers used data from PubMed, a search engine primarily accessing the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics, and Dimensions, a research grants database linking grants to resulting publications, clinical trials, and patents.

Researchers used the number of citations and publications to measure scientists’ productivity. They also compared the productivity of US-based principal investigators, who collaborated with colleagues in

China with those who collaborated with scientists in other foreign countries, from 2010 to 2014. Then they studied the publication records from 2015 to 2020 for over 102,000 scientists belonging to the two groups to measure changes after investigations triggered by the NIH letter in 2018.

The result is that the investigations coincide with a decline in the productivity of scientists who collaborated with their counterparts in China. “We also find that these effects concentrate in particular fields, especially those with high US-China collaboration and high levels of NIH funding,” Roberts said.

She also said that their study provided some “suggested evidence” showing that “affected fields have progressed more slowly in both the US and China in comparison to the rest of the world” and that they would dig deeper in the future.

The researchers interviewed some American scientists in the study. Molly said that many of these scientists, especially those collaborating with scientists in China, told them that these tensions in US-China relations had been “scientifically costly” for them.

“They’ve been administratively costly because they had to figure out new reporting requirements and new regulations from the university,” said Roberts. “Some of them had stopped working with their collaborators in China, and that loss of access to resources from China like machines, students, funds, and ideas have been scientifically costly for them.”

One of the panelists, James Mulvenon, an analysis director for Peraton Labs, said that “there are parts of the national security community that recognize that there are important areas of scientific inquiry between China and the United States that have absolutely no bearing on US National Security”, however, “there are actually areas of scientific inquiry as the authors have conceded, that do have important implications for US National Security”.

“I will say that the securitization of science, you know, has not been driven by a bunch of racist John Birchers, but, in fact, actual government assessments of the worsening threat and environment on both sides and that increased possibility of military conflict,” he said.

Another panelist, Deborah Seligsohn, an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Villanova University, countered Mulvenon’s point.

“I spent so much of my time when I was the science counselor at the US Embassy in Beijing just trying to get people in Washington who cleared visas to understand what each scientist actually based on a title or something like that,” she said, “I really think that there is a long-standing problem with an insufficient level of expertise on in specific fields in the people who are making a lot of the decisions about technology risk.”

On China’s “civil-military fusion” that drives concerns of the US, Seligsohn said that it is like what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”.

“And so, we’ve had it in the United States for 70 years, and I think we do have to recognize that, of course, this exists in both,” said Seligsohn. “Dual-use technology is going to increasingly be an important part of how things are done. But there’s a difference between basic science and commercial application, and I think that often gets lost.”

“I will also say that if we increasingly hinder the ability of international students and Chinese students specially to come and do grad school here, there are not necessarily Americans who are, you know, well trained and able to take their spots,” Seligsohn added. “[And so, you know] preventing Chinese students from doing their PHD’s, from working in these high-tech fields really is going to hinder American research,” she added.

Originally published at China Daily