China-US R&D decoupling detrimental for both countries

Given the US’s firm stance on safeguarding national security, in particular against China, the research and development sector is among the few that have been deeply impacted. Lianhe Zaobao journalist Hai Kexian speaks with academics to find out the severity of this decoupling in research collaboration.
People walk through Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 12 December 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)
People walk through Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 12 December 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

Although the US government’s China Initiative ended nearly two years ago, the chilling effect of the programme is still felt, with research collaborations between academics in both countries tending towards decoupling. Interviewed academics think that China and the US will remain cautious on sharing key technologies related to national security, but should try to collaborate in the broader scope of scientific research, such as cancer treatment. 

Investigations against Chinese academics

Since the beginning of this century, China has implemented the Thousand Talents Plan and other foreign talent recruitment programmes to drive the country’s scientific research and development (R&D), a move that has alarmed the US government. In 2018, the US launched the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-led China Initiative, a large-scale investigation of academics in the US with a mainland Chinese background or links with China, to prevent China from stealing US technology and secrets via academic research.

While the China Initiative ended on 23 February 2022, the Joe Biden administration remains highly guarded against Chinese talent. David Zweig, professor emeritus at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)’s Division of Social Science, told Lianhe Zaobao that the investigations over the past few years have caused a lot of anxiety and many academics have simply given up applying for research grants from the NIH and other US agencies for fear of being investigated.

Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, once criticised certain academics who accepted research grants from the NIH without declaring their employment with Chinese institutions and the subsidies received from them. Sixty percent of the academics involved were reportedly terminated or disqualified from the NIH grant following the investigation.  

“... the FBI may not have cared if they could actually convict people. What they wanted was to disrupt what they saw as a cycle of illicit tech transfer.” — David Zweig, Professor Emeritus, Division of Social Science, HKUST

FBI headquarters building is seen in Washington, US, 7 December 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
FBI headquarters building is seen in Washington, US, on 7 December 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

But an article published in MIT Technology Review at the end of 2021 claimed that many of the cases investigated by the China Initiative were ultimately withdrawn or dismissed, with only approximately 25% of the cases saw the academics being convicted.

Zweig analysed, “Mike German, a former FBI agent who blew the whistle on the FBI… he said that the FBI may not have cared if they could actually convict people. What they wanted was to disrupt what they saw as a cycle of illicit tech transfer.”

A report published by Arizona State University and the Committee of 100 — a grouping of elite Chinese Americans — three years after the China Initiative was launched, found that for fear of increased scrutiny, many scientists of Chinese descent have intentionally chosen not to pursue federal funding for their projects. Scientists of non-Chinese descent have also reported cutting ties or limiting communications with their collaborators in China, or are no longer hiring Chinese postdoctorates.

... a growing number of Chinese scholars have been leaving US institutions for China each year since 2018. In 2021, a total of 1,490 Chinese scholars left the US for China. 

Declining number of research and Chinese scholars in US

The deteriorating political climate has prompted some Chinese scholars to leave the US. Data published last June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America by Xie Yu, member of the US’s National Academy of Sciences, found that a growing number of Chinese scholars have been leaving US institutions for China each year since 2018. In 2021, a total of 1,490 Chinese scholars left the US for China.

Chinese students in American universities are also on the decline. The US Department of State said that during the 2022 to 2023 academic year, nearly 290,000 Chinese students were studying in the US, a 20% decrease from the over 370,000-strong cohort in 2019.

People walk by Harvard Yard in Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 12 December 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)
People walk by Harvard Yard in Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 12 December 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

Last year, the Foreign Policy magazine quoted David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, as saying that the brain drain is “absolutely devastating” for the US as many of the researchers that the US relies on in the advanced technology field are from China or are foreign students. 

Statistics from analytics company Clarivate published last November showed that the US’s share of highly cited researchers has declined over the years. Although the US still topped the list with 2,669 Highly Cited Researcher designations last year, it was a 5.8% decrease since 2018. Meanwhile, there were 1,275 Highly Cited Researcher designations in mainland China last year, a 10% increase since 2018.

Zweig opined that as academics reduce their funding applications to US institutes, the number of papers they publish under affiliations to these institutes would also decline as a result. The number of papers co-authored and co-published by Chinese and US academics would decline sharply as well, thus impacting the US’s performance in scientific research.

“... there exists a technology gap of easily 20 to 30 years before China could catch up to the US. Even if China manages to catch up, the momentum to overtake may require even more investment...” — Professor Zeng Shaohua, School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, NTU

US remains in the lead despite talent import by China

Meanwhile, China attracts foreign talent by offering sizeable subsidies and attractive remuneration, in turn raising their level of scientific research. In 2022, China’s investment in R&D broke the 3 trillion RMB (US$420 billion) mark, at close to 3.1 trillion RMB, roughly up 10% compared with 2021. 

Zweig stated that academics that return to China through talent programmes not only receive ample subsidies, they are also often pegged as leaders of a research group, and can recruit more assistants to spur results from research projects.

Travellers wait for their trains at Shanghai Hongqiao railway station in Shanghai, China, 5 February 2024. (Nicoco Chan/Reuters)
Travellers wait for their trains at Shanghai Hongqiao railway station in Shanghai, China, on 5 February 2024. (Nicoco Chan/Reuters)

But he also pointed out that top researchers who return to China to further their careers are in the minority, and only about 1% are those who outperform their US counterparts. Moreover, many who returned to China ended up publishing less in top journals.

Zweig added that many China-born scholars overseas are concerned with factors such as bureaucratic power within China, and thus “are willing to work for China, but not return to China”.

In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao, Zeng Shaohua, professor at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering of National Technological University (NTU) and Cheng Tsang Man chair professor in energy and director of China-Singapore International Joint Research Institute at China-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City, stated, “Despite increased investment in critical research fields by China, in my opinion, there exists a technology gap of easily 20 to 30 years before China could catch up to the US. Even if China manages to catch up, the momentum to overtake may require even more investment, as the US will also increase research spending in disruptive technology development.” 

Zeng added that China is ahead of the US currently when it comes to areas such as 5G technology and electric vehicles, but the US is still at the top for semiconductor and chip technology, as well as other areas such as biomedicine. 

The US spent US$680 billion on R&D in 2022, an increase of roughly 5.5% year-on-year; it is still the leading country when it comes to R&D expenditure. 

“... early-stage discoveries are crucial in determining the allocation of research funding. Space technology is one example.” — Professor Zeng

China-US scientific research collaboration must find a way

China-US relations is hard to improve, and the guardrails put up by both countries against the other would most likely continue to undermine scientific research collaboration and knowledge exchange. The Chronicle of Higher Education last year quoted Jane Gatewood, vice-provost at the University of Rochester, who commented that researchers at universities would have to learn and adapt to the “grey area” in their line of work moving forward. 

People visit a shopping mall in Beijing on 18 February 2024. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)
People visit a shopping mall in Beijing on 18 February 2024. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)

Zeng commented that the process of knowledge transfer is somewhat complicated. “It’s challenging to distinguish which knowledge can or cannot be shared during the early stages of research… throughout the development of the knowledge chain, protecting early-stage research investments is difficult. Yet, these early-stage discoveries are crucial in determining the allocation of research funding. Space technology is one example.” 

Space technology is one of the key areas of China-US competition; there is a great deal of attention on this area because of its dual-use capabilities in both the commercial and defence sectors.

Zweig said that both China and the US have in recent years expanded their scope of definition for “national security”, and it is unlikely that both sides would drop their guard and loosen up in the next few years, especially when it involves sensitive areas such as nuclear and dual-use technology. 

However, he also thinks that China and the US should continue seeking out ways to collaborate in areas outside of national security, such as in the medical sector. Collective cancer research efforts by both countries over the years, for instance, should not be inhibited by political shackles. Governments of both countries should clearly define the scope of sensitive technologies, so as to safeguard national security in a more targeted manner. 

Zeng also stressed that restricting research collaboration would not achieve the goal of hampering the opponent’s development, as it is hard to completely block knowledge transfer — any restrictions would only slow it down.

“Chinese scholars may be affected in the short term, but it won’t take long for them to catch up again, ” he said. “Competition will drive technological advancement at a fast pace, which isn’t entirely negative… research and education are borderless; hence, the future [China-US] model is likely to involve ‘coopetition’.” 

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中美学者科研合作正走向脱钩”.

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