In 1991, about 25 babies in every 100,000 in the United States were born with spina bifida, a birth defect that can cause paralysis and brain damage. Fifteen years later, the likelihood had fallen by nearly one-third. That so many babies could be spared such a fate was thanks to the simple discovery that folic acid supplements could dramatically reduce the chances of neural tube defects, which cause spina bifida and anencephalus, a rarer condition.
It was “one of the great successes of public health,” according to Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – and it was a success that was established in China during a collaboration between researchers from the CDC in Atlanta and Peking University Health Science Center in Beijing.
Now, such collaboration – which has also led to advances like reductions in air pollution and improved understanding of earthquakes – is under threat. The US-China Science and Technology Agreement, the umbrella framework under which the birth defects study was facilitated, is set to expire on 27 August. The agreement – the first signed after Beijing and Washington normalised relations in 1979 – is normally renewed every five years. But amid growing tensions, the future of US-China scientific collaboration looks uncertain.
US legislators from the select committee on China are urging US secretary of state Antony Blinken to let the deal expire, lest Beijing use it to “advance its military objectives”. Mike Gallagher, the chair of the congressional committee on China, has said that the agreement jeopardises US intellectual property. But scientists argue that such a move would hinder progress on transnational problems.
“Failure to renew the agreement would have a highly negative impact on scientific cooperation of all kinds,” says Deborah Seligsohn, a political science professor at Villanova University and former science and technology counsellor at the US embassy in Beijing. “It would make it much more difficult to increase cooperation in areas we really care about, like climate change.”
A spokesperson for the state department declined to comment on international negotiations. The Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to a request for comment.
Xie Feng, China’s ambassador in Washington, has said that Beijing wants to renew the agreement. China has long benefited from US funding and partnerships. Between 2015 and 2021, US government agencies provided nearly $30m to Chinese entities for a range of activities, including disease surveillance, vaccine studies and drone technology. But since China’s leader Xi Jinping took power in 2012, Beijing’s annual spending on scientific research has doubled. Lately, he has emphasised the need for “high quality growth” and technological self-reliance, particularly in strategic areas like artificial intelligence. So despite China’s struggling economy, government support for research and development has continued to be generous. In 2022, spending on basic research increased by 13.5% and total spending on research and development surpassed 3trn yuan (£326.3bn).
China ‘setting the priorities for the next decade’
The most striking metric of China’s growth has been in the sheer number of research papers that the country produces. In 2020, it overtook the US to become the world leader in terms of the overall volume of research published, according to Clarivate, a data firm that tracks scientific research. “What [China] is doing is going to set the priorities for the next decade,” says Jonathan Adams, the chief scientist of the Institute for Scientific Information, the research arm at Clarivate.
But as the volume of research from China has increased, some experts have raised concerns about its quality. Between 2017 and 2022, 2,500 Chinese or Chinese co-written papers were retracted because of concerns about plagiarism or due to being linked to a paper mill, according to Retraction Watch, a website that monitors scientific retractions. Paper mills are black market vendors that sell ghostwritten studies to researchers desperate to get published. For studies from US institutions in the same time period, just 123 papers have been retracted for similar reasons.
In 2020, Beijing instructed Chinese institutions to stop offering cash rewards for published research, in a bid to crack down on high quantity, low quality research. But other incentives remain. Many paper mills in China appear to be linked to medical institutions, says Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist-turned-science investigator who studies research for signs of manipulation or plagiarism.
Medical students are expected to publish research in order to climb the career ladder, an “impossible requirement” considering their training schedules, Bik says. So some students end up turning to the black market. In January, the Ministry of Science and Technology said that dozens of medical researchers at hospital-affiliated universities had been punished for academic fraud, including using ghostwriters and falsified data for PhD theses.
Scientists interviewed by the Guardian stressed that China’s top universities and reputable international journals still maintained high standards. “There will always be low quality research,” says Joy Zhang, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent who focuses on transnational scientific study. “The issue is really about how we filter them.”
Several indicators suggest that the quality of Chinese research is improving. Between 2012 and 2021, China’s share of the top 1% of the most-cited papers grew by 40%, while the US’s share dropped by 18%. The US is still ahead, according to Clarivate’s data, but the gap is narrowing, and other estimates suggest that China has already overtaken the US.
This is particularly apparent in fields that China considers a strategic priority. In computer science, China’s share of global research far outstrips the US, and is increasing rapidly. Washington is concerned about Chinese advances in artificial intelligence, especially for military applications, and has restricted China’s access to the most advanced semiconductors in a bid to slow down this research. In August, the US president, Joe Biden, signed an executive order restricting US investment in semiconductors and microelectronics, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, having already banned the export of certain types of these technologies in 2022.
Fear, stigma and slowing collaboration
The Biden administration’s restrictions are a product of the souring ties between the US and China. Between 2018 and 2022, the US Department of Justice ran a project known as the China Initiative, which aimed to weed out spies in American research and industry. Critics of the initiative, which resulted in more than 100 people losing their jobs, said that it discriminated against researchers of Chinese origin.
In November last year, Sherry Chen, a Chinese-American hydrologist, was awarded $1.75m in damages from the US commerce department. Although Chen’s case predated the China Initiative, it was seen as a bellwether for the increasingly hostile environment for Chinese researchers in the US.
Washington no longer operates the China Initiative as a formal programme, but it “created a strong sense of fear among the scientific community”, notes Yu Jie, senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, in a recent report. Several scientists spoken to by the Guardian say the effects have endured.
There is a “social stigma” attached to working with Chinese scientists, says Zhang. “A lot of young researchers who are not Chinese have expressed concern about collaborating with China.”
One Chinese clinical researcher in the US told the Guardian that she had turned down multiple promising job offers because they came from people or institutions with links to China. “It’s sad to say that. I still have attachments there. But in the US I need to sustain myself, and no one is going to be my saviour if I get into trouble. So I stay ultra safe”.
Chinese universities have also increased their scrutiny of any international engagements. Zhang says that it is now much harder than it used to be to get a response from Chinese research teams, because “establishing international collaborations doesn’t mean that much to them any more,” as Chinese institutions put more emphasis on producing their own research.
Beijing is also trying to lure back Chinese researchers. Yu notes that the standard salary for a natural sciences researcher returning to China is $150,000. In 2021, China went from being a net exporter to a net importer of scientists, helped in part by restrictions in G7 countries on Chinese students working in strategically important sectors such as AI. “The US government’s various initiatives have inadvertently boosted Chinese Stem researchers’ returning home,” says Yu.
All this, and the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic, mean that the pace of collaborations between US and Chinese researchers and institutions has slowed. That threatens to undermine some of the most cutting edge scientific advances.
Between 2017 and 2021, around one-third of US research on telecommunications and computer science was produced in collaboration with China, according to Clarivate. One-fifth of environmental science research published in that time period was done with Chinese scientists. “All the high impact research is international collaboration,” says Clarivate’s Adams. “To miss out on that would be suicidal.”