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Scientists in China say US government crackdown is harming collaborations

Investigations into foreign interference on US campuses have rattled researchers in both countries.

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Charles Lieber leaves federal court, Boston.

Chemist Charles Lieber has been indicted for making false statements to authorities about his ties to a Chinese recruitment programme.Credit: Katherine Taylor/Reuters

Scientists in China have told Nature that they are reluctant to travel to the United States for conferences or other research activities even when pandemic travel restrictions lift. They fear being caught up in the US government’s crackdown on foreign interference in science and ongoing political tensions between the two nations. The scrutiny has also led some researchers in China to dial back on collaborations with US colleagues and form new partnerships with teams in Europe or Japan.

Researchers in both countries say that US policies, such as increasingly onerous visa restrictions on Chinese scientists and students, and tightened export controls, are also having a chilling effect on bilateral research partnerships.

If researchers in China reduce their travel to the United States — because of political tensions, visa restrictions or pandemic travel restrictions — that will affect collaborations, says Caroline Wagner, a science and technology policy researcher at the Ohio State University in Columbus. Most research collaborations start from face to face meetings, she says, but researchers need to travel for those to happen. “Zoom is not a good substitute,” she says.

Much of the evidence that US-China collaborations are under threat is anecdotal so far. China and the United States are each other’s biggest collaborators in terms of co-authorship of published papers, and there’s no sign of this changing as yet. And US government agencies say they’re not seeing a change in US–China collaborations. But researchers and science-policy experts are still concerned by reports that collaborations are being affected.

“I think the worsening political relationship between the United States and China is certainly harming scientific collaboration between the two countries,” says John Holdren, an environmental-policy researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was science adviser to the administration of US president Barack Obama.

Political tensions

The research community has been embroiled in the political tension between the world’s two largest economies for years. Since 2018, the United States has increasingly restricted visas for Chinese students in high-tech fields such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), and in May it stopped giving visas to researchers from China who have funding from or work for a Chinese institution with links to the military.

US controls on what research can be shared with China have also been tightened repeatedly since 2018. They have reduced collaborations on research with industrial applications, including in AI, quantum computing and semiconductors, says Denis Simon, former executive vice-chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in Kunshan, China, who returned to the United States in June.

US agencies have also been investigating foreign interference in government-funded science. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) said last month that 189 researchers who have received NIH grants appear to have breached agency or institutional rules regarding the confidentiality of peer review, conflicts of interest or the disclosure of foreign ties. Its data indicate that 93% of the 189 researchers had support from China. Fifty-four of the researchers have resigned or been removed from their positions. This week, Nature reported that since 2018, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken action in 16–20 cases where foreign ties were not properly reported. Both agencies say they are concerned about foreign influence on research integrity but that investigations are not targeting nationals of a particular country.

The crackdown extends beyond the NIH and the NSF. In 2018, the US Department of Justice launched a ‘China Initiative’ to counter what it says is intellectual-property theft or economic espionage involving China, among other things. The initiative has led to the arrests of several scientists, some — but not all — of Chinese descent. In January, Charles Lieber, a chemist at Harvard, was arrested for allegedly making false statements about his affiliation with the Wuhan University of Technology in China and his participation in China’s leading recruitment programme for overseas researchers, the Thousand Talents Plan. The justice department says its investigations are about protecting US intellectual property and national security.

Enthusiasm decreases

Researchers in China say the US government crackdown is making them less inclined to travel there for conferences and other academic exchanges. Yu Hongyu, dean of the School of Microelectronics at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, says many researchers at his institution have cancelled plans to go to the United States for conferences, in part because of the pandemic; they are unwilling to go even when pandemic-related travel restrictions end, because they fear US government agencies could investigate them just because they’re from China. He says it’s unclear which behaviour and activities are considered a national-security breach and should be avoided — a sentiment shared by several researchers in China who spoke to Nature.

The US government is still determining which actions and research activities are a national-security risk, says Brad Farnsworth, vice-president of global engagement at the American Council on Education in Washington DC. “The lack of transparency is going to cause counterparts in China to exercise caution,” he says.

Simon says US and Chinese universities need to work together to come up with a code of conduct for academic exchange, research collaboration and protecting intellectual property. That would allow research collaborations to flourish while also guarding against genuine threats to security or intellectual property.

The US government crackdown has even led some researchers in China to reduce communication with US researchers. “The United States government doesn’t encourage top scientists working in the United States to have more contact and cooperation with us,” says Guan Jianguo, dean of education at the Wuhan University of Technology’s International School of Materials Science and Engineering. He is wary of contacting his former collaborators in the United States even by phone or e-mail, for fear that might put them on the radar of US agencies.

Looking elsewhere

Earlier this year, Guan says, he started increasing his connections with scientists in Europe and elsewhere outside the United States. Yu adds that scientists at US universities seem to be reducing their collaborations with his institution. He doesn’t know why, but thinks US scientists are under pressure not to collaborate with Chinese colleagues. He is still open to US partnerships, but says he will increase his university’s connections to institutions in Canada, Europe and Japan.

Evidence reported by US agencies of Chinese nationals committing intellectual-property theft has created an environment in which some Chinese researchers aren’t trusted, says Charles Wessner, an innovation-policy researcher at Georgetown University in Washington DC. In February, the FBI said that it was conducting about 1,000 active investigations into intellectual-property theft involving China. And Wessner understands why some researchers in China might fear being investigated and so reduce their collaborations with the United States. But he thinks there’s no factual basis to the idea that US or Chinese researchers would get into trouble simply for contacting a researcher in the other country.

Still, researchers in both nations who want to continue collaborations “are in danger of having their patriotism questioned”, says Holdren.

Data trends

On paper, collaborations between US and Chinese scientists seem as strong as ever. Publications indexed in the Scopus database with both US and Chinese authors have been increasing each year for several decades. And the two countries are each others’ largest collaborators, according to a 2018 National Science Foundation analysis of select science and engineering journals in the Scopus database. In 2019, 63,451 papers in the database had both US and Chinese authors, which represented 9% of China’s output and 9% of the United States’.

But co-authorships probably don’t reflect recent changes in collaboration, says Wagner. Most partnerships that lead to papers start two to five years before the articles are published, she says. “The academic publication record lags.”

Agency opinions

Science funding agencies say they haven’t seen any changes to collaborations. Rebecca Keiser, chief of research security strategy and policy at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, says the agency’s data show that partnerships between researchers it funds and researchers in China haven’t fluctuated over the past five years, despite investigations into ties with China.

Michael Lauer, deputy director of extramural research at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, doesn’t think the NIH’s activity is affecting partnerships between US researchers and those in China. “This is not about collaborations; this is about unethical behaviour,” he says.

But Kei Koizumi, a former senior adviser in science policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC, says some US scientists now think that collaborating with researchers in China isn’t worth the risk of being investigated, and that some Chinese scientists probably feel the same. He expects US–China partnerships to become a smaller percentage of the United States’ total international collaborations, with drops in research that leads to industrial applications, including medicine, AI and clean energy. “Nobody wants to get hassled for doing research,” he says.

Others hope that partnerships will remain strong. Wagner says that her research has shown that 20–30% of China–US co-authorships involve native Chinese scholars who are now residing in the United States and working with researchers in China1. “That is a really high percentage; those people aren’t going to stop collaborating with people in China,” Wagner says.

Nature 583, 341-342 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02015-y

Additional reporting by Richard van Noorden and Nidhi Subbaraman.

References

  1. 1.

    Cao, C., Baas, J., Wagner, C. S. & Jonkers, K. Sci. Public Policy 47, 172–183 (2020).

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