The US is distancing itself from its longtime scientific partner

Aug 18, 2023, 10:29am EDT
securitytechEast Asia
Karina Tsui/

The U.S. and China are severing ties in scientific research as tensions continue to accelerate between the two countries.

In Washington, some U.S. lawmakers are eager to see a decades-long joint science and technology agreement expire without further renewal. The agreement was signed in 1979 and has been routinely extended ever since.

The last time Beijing signed the agreement was in January 2018.

The scientific decoupling is taking place amid growing concerns over information sharing. Since 2018, DC has clamped down on interactions between Chinese academics in American institutions and vice versa — launching hundreds of investigations into suspected espionage and forcing thousands1 of Chinese scientists out of U.S. universities. In several cases, Chinese academics have been accused of concealing extensive ties to China in grant applications and conducting research for the purpose of benefiting Beijing.

But for students and scientists who left China for greater academic freedoms in the U.S., fears of government surveillance have left many feeling despondent2 . Four in 10 U.S.-trained Chinese researchers have returned home. “The U.S. government used to criticize the academic environment of the Soviet Union,” said Fields Medal winner Shing-Tung Yau, one of the most high-profile researchers to leave the U.S. for Beijing’s Tsinghua University. ”I didn’t expect that to be revived here.”

The U.S. needs Chinese scientists3 more than Beijing needs American research, some experts believe, given China's scientific power. A National Science Foundation report says that American institutions have consistently chosen co-authors from China more than any other country to maintain the quality of their research. Chinese scholars also publish a large fraction of the top 1% most cited4 scientific papers. Opening up American higher education to the world "is not about helping China to become strong, nor should we delude ourselves about Beijing’s intentions," writes Dan Murphy of Harvard Kennedy School. It’s about ensuring "that America remains the best country in the world for learning and research."

China has continued to advance in areas of science and technology that are not reliant on foreign partnerships, such as artificial intelligence. But the decoupling has global implications:5 Chinese researchers who were prevented from working in the U.S. are now collaborating with Saudi Arabia on building a large language model, the FT reports.