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Since 1967, Photonics Spectra magazine has defined the science and industry of photonics, providing both technical and practical information for every aspect of the global industry and promoting an international dialogue among the engineers, scientists and end users who develop, commercialize and buy photonics products. Stay current with a FREE subscription to the digital or print edition.

Latest Issue
Sep 2023

Ending scientific collaboration will not end risks

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.

Mike Wheeler
As editor-in-chief, Michael Wheeler oversees Photonics Media's editorial operations — spanning print, web, and podcasts. He also serves as editor of Vision Spectra, chronicling advancements in the rapidly expanding machine vision/inspection sector.
Dan McCarthy
Senior editor Dan McCarthy manages editorial content and production for Photonics Spectra. An award-winning writer and editor, he has communicated the progress and practical value of advanced technologies for over two decades.
Doug Farmer
Senior Editor Douglas Farmer has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, winning awards for health and education reporting. He has a master's degree in journalism from Ball State University. He is editor of BioPhotonics magazine.
Hank Hogan
Contributing Editor Hank Hogan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He worked in the semiconductor industry and now writes about science and technology.
Marie Freebody
Contributing Editor Marie Freebody is a freelance science and technology journalist with a master’s degree in physics and a concentration in nuclear astrophysics from the University of Surrey in England.
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