How China-US Collaborations Continue Despite Politics

In February, the US Department of Justice dropped its China Initiative, an effort to track espionage in research and industry. Arrests of Chinese-born researchers following the initiative have made headlines and countless scientists have suffered unnecessary stress and investigation. The legacy of the program continues.

A researcher at a US lab told me how, due to their collaborations in China, they lost access to their lab, grants and research staff as government officials and university administrators investigated. about the trips that the researcher had made to China with personal funds. It took months of court appeals to show they had done nothing wrong. Meanwhile, their work, collaborators and interns have been left adrift. Another scientist told me they thought they and other people of Asian descent were being treated as potential spies to be hunted down. This individual has severed all collaboration with Chinese researchers. The number of collaborations between the United States and China has dropped over the past five years (CS Wagner and X. Cai Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/2202.00453; 2022).

Yet many researchers are finding ways to ensure that these collaborations continue. The US federal government should learn from this and learn how to foster these partnerships.

I study how geopolitics shapes international collaboration. Supported by the Committee of 100, a non-profit organization dedicated to constructive US-China relations, and in collaboration with Xiaojie Li, an education policy researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson, I conducted a survey of approximately 2,000 scientists in the United States. United States between May and July 2021 (see go.nature.com/3z2za). Some 95% of respondents felt that Chinese scientists made important research contributions; 93% believe that limiting collaboration with China will have a negative impact on academia; and 87% said the United States should build stronger collaborations with China.

In separate work, John Haupt, an education policy researcher at the University of Arizona, and I have observed that much of the upward trend in American science output is supported by China: American research publications would have declined without Chinese co-authors, while China’s publication rate would have increased without the United States (JJ Lee and JP Haupt High. Educ. 80, 57–74; 2020).

Collaborations between the two countries are being reshaped and refocused — and the changes might be harder to see in standard metrics.

Although much of the American political attention has focused on combating intelligence theft, researchers themselves are focused on lost opportunities to produce knowledge and ideas. Scientists form international ties based on their own interest. Ill-advised policies are obstacles, but not obstacles, to collaborating with leading scientists, wherever they are (CS Wagner and L. Leydesdorff Res. Policy 34, 1608-1618; 2005).

Many scientists have reported abandoning collaborative ties with China, and indeed all ties outside the United States, for fear of being unfairly prosecuted – but many others have found other ways to maintain their collaborations, such as seeking non-federal grants, for which collaborators’ backgrounds are not scrutinized as strictly. A researcher maintains his collaborations but avoids financial transactions between countries. Others expand their project from binational to multinational teams, or limit their projects to open source data or data provided entirely by foreign collaborators. Particularly given the lack of clarity around identifying and reporting conflicts of interest, US scientists have been cautious but found ways to work with China.

Should the government continue to crack down? Such a bureaucratic witch hunt will harm domestic science. Espionage happens – but scientists whose research has no clear military or economic value should not be held to the same federal requirements as those whose work does.

Before adopting sweeping measures, federal agencies need to consider how policies aimed at stopping intellectual property (IP) theft can limit progress. A survey conducted by the MIT Technology Review found that the China Initiative began by focusing on economic espionage and hacking, but that its mandate was ill-defined and extended to “research integrity cases” without clear links to national security or intellectual property theft (see go.nature.com/3ansl).

To avoid counterproductive effects, scientists, especially those in international teams, must be involved in the development of well-defined policies, and there must be mechanisms to prevent governmental excesses.

The trust of many scientists in their institutions eroded as a result of the China Initiative, as they felt targeted rather than consulted. Thus, steering groups of experienced researchers in various fields should inform institutional practices. Impacts need to be better assessed and balanced if policies are to support both open research and homeland security. Federal grants should be something researchers seek out and should not hesitate. Collaborations with Chinese colleagues should not be treated as a sign of potential criminality. Innocent administrative errors should not lead to the exclusion of researchers from their laboratories and their students – or to more serious penalties.

Unless researchers are driven to defend their own interests in pursuing collaborations, sweeping measures to clamp down on potential theft of intellectual property could thwart, rather than support, US competitiveness.

Competing interests

JJL has an outside interest in the University of Arizona Committee of 100. Any resulting conflicts of interest are managed by the University of Arizona in accordance with its policies.

About Christopher Easley

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