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Ending scientific collaboration will not end risks

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Though the drift away from globalization has unfolded slowly during the past several years, it would be hard by now for anyone to miss the gap growing between the U.S. and China. Fueled by intellectual property disputes, trade wars, an apparent spy balloon, and increasingly stringent controls over exports and investments, the long-fraught commercial competition between the two countries looks increasingly confrontational.

Much of the discord has revolved around commercial interests, though the latest salvo has targeted what the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) described in an August 16 article as one of “the most productive scientific collaborations of the 21st century.” Specifically, as of press time, several U.S. lawmakers were pushing the Biden administration to allow a historic technology agreement signed by the U.S. and China in 1979 — and renewed every five years since — to lapse when it is due for renewal again on August 27.

The salvo came in the form of a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.), the chairman of a congressional select committee on China. The letter, signed by nine other representatives, argued that China has been leveraging its collaborative research with U.S. scientists to advance its military and other competitive interests. It concluded, in part, that “The United States must stop fueling its own destruction. Letting the [U.S.-China technology agreement] expire is a good first step.”

It would be naïve to argue that collaborative research between increasingly divergent economic competitors is a risk-free enterprise. But canceling a decades-old framework that has produced thousands of successful scientific collaborations is not without its own risks.

The WSJ cites an analysis by data firm Clarivate, which reports that more than 40% of the high-quality papers that U.S.-based scientists produce involve cooperation with researchers abroad, and China rates as the U.S.’s top research collaborator. Breakthroughs from climate studies to clean energy originated from shared research performed by Chinese and U.S. scientists and have generated significant returns for both economies.

Further, China is arguably more advanced in certain fields, such as telecom, nanoscience, and energy storage. By walling off its own scientists in these fields, the U.S. risks losing insights into the latest advancements discovered elsewhere.

Emerging fields, such as AI, biotech, and quantum technology all admittedly present potential national security risks to the U.S., which increases the potential risk implicit in sharing related research with foreign scientists. But there is an argument for keeping one hand on the wheel by allowing U.S. scientists in these fields to selectively engage in noncompetitive, non-dual-use research.

Like commerce, science benefits from a flat playing field. Closing the park benefits no one.

Without a structured platform for collaboration, China won’t be the only country to lose insights into developments in key sectors. Rather than discard a cooperative arrangement that has provided the U.S. with over four decades of highly beneficial and lucrative scientific research, perhaps the best way to mitigate risk would be to consult with actual scientific experts to review and update said agreement to focus its mandate on mutually beneficial fields of study.

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2023

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