Research implications of US efforts to enhance science cooperation with China

Scientists caution that the action is only a stopgap and that a lack of a complete renewal could harm research cooperation.

A significant symbolic agreement to collaborate with Beijing in the fields of science and technology has been renewed by the US administration for another six months. The short-term extension of the accord, which was set to expire on August 27th, has given researchers new optimism that the 44-year-old deal will endure.

The deal does not include financing for research. Instead, it acts as a broad agreement to promote mutually beneficial relationships among US and Chinese government organizations, academic institutions, and organizations conducting research in a variety of disciplines, including agriculture, energy, health, and the environment. The extension indicates that, for the time being, research will proceed normally. The non-binding arrangement first went into effect in 1979 and has been extended every five years since then.

Escalating conflict
Researchers from China and the United States think that the agreement has significant symbolic importance in addition to its practical role in fostering scientific collaboration.

According to Li Tang, an assistant professor of policy studies at Fudan University, which is located in China, “abandoning such an established arrangement would only worsen the continuing fragmentation in science and education” between the two countries.

The agreement was modified in 2018 during its most recent renewal to reinforce rights to intellectual property created through bilateral research collaborations. However, relations between the two countries have risen since then, which may have influenced the Biden administration’s choice to adopt only a temporary extension, according to researchers.

A US program that sought to protect US firms and laboratories against espionage is one of the initiatives that has harmed relations. Prior to being closed last year, it aimed at researchers of Chinese heritage. Additionally, the Act on CHIPS and Science, which was passed by the US Congress in July 2022 and tightens research security measures, requires US institutions to declare donations of US$50,000 or greater from foreign governments, up from the previous reporting cap of $250,000.

Meanwhile, due to worries about cybersecurity and data privacy, the Chinese government reportedly banned the transfer of academic and medical data from China.

Resistance in Congress
Some US politicians have demanded its termination, claiming it presents a danger to national security. Some members of the US House of the Representatives committee on China claimed in an email to Antony Blinken, the nation’s secretary of state, dated June 27, that research partnerships set up under the agreement between the US and Chinese governments may have created devices that could be utilized later against the US.

However, other scientists lobbied the United States government to keep the pact in place. Steven Kivelson and Pete Michelson, two physicists from Stanford University in California, wrote to President Biden on August 24 to express their belief that the agreement provides a crucial basis for bilateral cooperation and that severing off ties with China would be a mistake.

Is cooperation in danger?
Without the deal, scientific collaboration between the two countries may become “deeply problematic,” according to Deborah Seligsohn, a US-China relations scholar at the University of Villanova in the state of Pennsylvania and former US Department of State official who worked at the US consulate in Beijing. According to her, it provided the “critical structural basis” for initiatives like the study of birth anomalies that led to the finding that folic acid may avoid spina bifida from occurring and other neural tube problems.

If the deal is terminated, according to Jenny Lee, a researcher on higher education at the University of the state of Arizona in Tucson, it might harm American educational institutions and research more than it would China.

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