US–Chinese trade war puts scientists in the cross hairs

Trump puts tariffs on Chinese technology and China retaliates with taxes on US chemicals.

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U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping

The governments of US President Donald Trump (left) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are engaged in an escalating trade war.Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Scientific research in the United States could become collateral damage in the country’s escalating trade dispute with China. Both countries went head-to-head in mid-June over tariffs on a long list of goods that includes lab equipment and reagents. That is likely to increase the cost of scientific research, and the impact could be felt more keenly in US labs.

The latest skirmish in the ongoing trade war between the world’s two largest economies began on 15 June, when the United States announced a 25% tax on 818 goods imported from China. The list includes equipment used by scientists such as basic electrical parts, microscopes and geological-survey devices. President Donald Trump said the tariffs, which will start on 6 July, are intended to reduce China’s dominance in industries such as robotics, new materials and information and communications technology, and will level the playing field for US firms. The Trump administration is considering tariffs on a further 284 industrial goods, including chemicals.

A day after the US announcement, China’s Ministry of Commerce responded with its own set of tariffs on 545 US products imported to China, which will also start on 6 July. The government will apply taxes in the future to another 114 US imports — including basic chemicals and medical devices, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines — although it has not announced a date.

US science squeeze

Scientists in the United States were quick to denounce Trump’s latest round of tariffs. “I am opposed to these seemingly ad hoc tariffs because it will further stretch the already anaemic scientific research budgets in this country,” says Thomas Lapen, a geochemist at the University of Houston, Texas. Equipment and supplies are the second-largest expense for his research, after paying wages. Lapen says that his costs are likely to increase because equipment or parts his team needs are on the US tariff list, such as electrical motors that drive centrifuges.

Priscilla Cushman, a dark-matter physicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, says that research deans at US universities should be scrutinizing the list to see whether the taxes will affect their facilities.

The tariffs could also cause havoc for large-scale experiments, such as the ADMX dark-matter detector at the University of Washington in Seattle, which is under construction. The project’s lead scientist, physicist Leslie Rosenberg, is worried that the equipment his team needs to build experiments — such as tools for power generation and distribution, and machinery that has Chinese electrical components — could be subject to the latest tariffs. “Anyone can see the tariff list, but an official must determine whether any particular procurement falls under the tariff,” he says.

Rosenberg thinks that the United States’ overall research capability will probably decline under the tariffs.

But other researchers aren’t worried. Roberto Refinetti, a biopsychologist who studies biological clocks at Boise State University in Idaho, uses some small Chinese-manufactured equipment for his work, such as infrared motion detectors for monitoring rodents. He doesn’t think that the tariffs on Chinese goods will significantly increase the cost of his research, because he purchases that type of equipment infrequently.

The White House and the Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to Nature’s request for comment on researchers’ concerns.

Indirect effects in China

In China, the tariff dispute could increase the cost of standard reagents used in laboratory and medical devices that scientists import from the United States. Ruibang Luo, a bioinformatician at the University of Hong Kong who collaborates with researchers on the mainland, says that if the Chinese government interprets some tariff items literally, the taxes could apply to a broad range of US-made reagents and research devices, including some DNA sequencers.

But Yu Zhou, a researcher at Vassar College in New York who studies science and technology development in China, says that the tariffs would not have a significant effect on research projects and experiments in China. She says that is because some universities have large enough budgets to absorb increased costs. Researchers could also share more equipment than they do now, or use goods made domestically and from countries other than the United States.

Brian Xu, a toxicologist for the scientific consulting firm ACTA in Washington DC, which works with businesses in mainland China, agrees that China’s proposal to place tariffs on US chemicals and scientific equipment is unlikely to have a major effect on Chinese research. He notes that scientists there import only a small amount of US-made chemicals, and that infrequently-replaced scientific equipment from other countries, such as Japan and Germany, is of comparable quality and cost.

But the latest round of tariffs might not be the last. On 18 June, Trump threatened to impose additional tariffs on Chinese goods if the country does not rescind its tariffs and create a more balanced trade relationship with the United States.

Nature 558, 494-495 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05521-2
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