US-China rivalry: When great power competition endangers global science

By Julien de Troullioud | October 16, 2020

Great Wall of China, partial silhouette Image of Great Wall of China courtesy of JLB1988/Pixabay

This is not the first time that the world has faced the outbreak of a coronavirus which originated in China.

But the consequences have been very different this time around.

Seventeen years ago, an outbreak of SARS—a disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-1—emerged in China. Back then, a fruitful partnership emerged between the United States and China, contributing greatly to the successful control of the outbreak.

That collaboration had other benefits: It not only resulted in the successful containment of SARS and the Avian Influenza, it also nurtured the careers of young Chinese virologists and epidemiologists.

Today, while the world is facing an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing the COVID-19 disease pandemic), China and the United States have engaged in an all-out confrontation—one that endangers not only that collaboration, but the greater issue of openness in science as a whole. This will necessarily have dire consequences: Pandemics, climate change, and other global perils can only be tackled successfully if future generations of scientists are allowed to thrive in a global environment in which collaboration prevails over competition.

The Chinese and American science partnership is a cornerstone to this endeavor. In 2016, more than 1.7 million students in science and engineering graduated in China, the highest number in the world. Many of these students decide to work abroad after graduating. And each year, US universities welcome the greatest number of international students in science, technology, engineering, and math in the world—about 497,413 students in 2019, of whom a third come from China.

This exchange of students—and the cooperative ethos it helps to boost between China and US researchers— has been a major factor in driving collaborative science on a global level. Of the top 500 most-cited articles in science and engineering that have Chinese and US collaborators, 67 percent are led by the Chinese or the US investigator, a study released this summer in Higher Education says.

But this collaborative enterprise, which has been so fruitful in the past, has come under siege in recent years, from factors in both countries, such as US restrictions on openness in science and China’s effort to control science. These features have huge impacts on young scientists—and on science across the globe. But all is not lost, and we can still take steps to protect science from great power competition.

US restrictions on openness in science. Politicians in the United States have undertaken several measures to reduce the intersecting alignments of Chinese and US interests in science and technology, and these actions disproportionately affect young scientists.

Members of Congress have introduced a series of legislative proposals aimed at curbing China’s influence on US science and technological research, under the guise of protecting US business, retaining a technological lead, or national security. For instance, the Protect Our Universities Act introduced by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Indiana) on March 12, 2019, would require students from China to “obtain a waiver after a background check from the Director of National Intelligence before participating in any ‘sensitive research projects.’ ” Along these same lines, several governmental agencies have warned the research community against collaboration with China, and even undertaken investigations of scientists with close connections to China. Most important, visas for Chinese students are increasingly difficult to obtain. The duration of a student visa for Chinese nationals has been reduced from five years to one year in certain fields, and the White House has recently decided to deny visas to students with alleged connections to Chinese military research.

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These unprecedented restrictions are a response to a limited number of cases in which the Chinese government sought to take advantage of the openness of American scientific research for its own benefit. There have been multiple reports of intellectual property theft, non-disclosure of participation in China’s “foreign talents” programs by researchers working on federally funded research, breach of research ethics where reviewers share research proposals with Chinese colleagues, and the operation of “shadow laboratories” in China by researchers working in the United States, where federally-funded research is replicated.

China’s control of science. Despite recent reforms, the governance of science in China is still characterized by strong bureaucratic and political control that impedes the free flow of knowledge among scientists. Chinese academics must seek authorization from various administrative bodies to invite foreign nationals or to attend international webinars, making it increasingly difficult for Western scholars and students to interact with their Chinese peers at international meetings.

 Beijing’s recent decision to place the National Natural Science Foundation of China under direct control of the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Chinese government’s picking of  “winner and losers”—selecting university leadership and goals—are clear evidence of a strong top-down management strategy. Scientists in Chinese universities complain that this leads to a system in which they have little voice in the formulation and selection of research projects.

The political control of the Chinese internet has serious impact on the openness of Chinese science. Essential web tools for research, such as Google Scholar, are blocked in China. Git Hub and other platforms that enable open-source software development have been intermittently unavailable. Several social media and communication platforms used by scientists—such as  Twitter, Slack, and Zoom—are blocked or subject to political censorship. Chinese scientists themselves use Chinese-made software, such as WeChat or Weibo.

Impacts on young scientists and global science. The policies implemented by the United States  to protect its scientific enterprise lack balance and nuance, and target many more young Chinese scientists than is reasonable or necessary. The executive order issued by the Trump administration that bans entry to the United States is not based on a review of an individual’s scientific profile but on their alleged affiliation with military research. As a result, thousands of young Chinese scientists with no malicious intent will be denied their education in America.

The investigations undertaken by US governmental agencies have led to a deterioration of the professional environment for Chinese scientists, especially for young scientists. Combined with harsher immigration policies, this is discouraging future generations of Chinese scientists from coming to the United States.

And China’s internet censorship and other ham-handed efforts to control the free flow of knowledge have caused many young scientists from Western countries to be reluctant to stay or work in China, an April report from Brookings notes.

This fracture in global science is also reflected in the tools and the platforms that young scientists use to conduct and share science. China’s censorship of online platforms commonly used by Western scientists and the threat of a US ban of the most popular Chinese communication software, Wechat, tends to create two parallel systems that do not communicate.

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The US-China rivalry has also affected export-control regulations on scientific numerical tools, data, and technologies. For instance, the South China Morning Post reported that several leading Chinese universities are now barred by the US government from using MATLAB, a programming software for numerical computation, after the Department of Commerce added two universities to a list of institutions with links to China’s military. Consequently, scientists from one side or the other might not be able to access equipment that is crucial for their research.

The exchange of young scientists and the use of common scientific tools is critical for important research, such as in nuclear security. Chinese post-doctoral scholars in nuclear security visiting US universities become important partners in enduring connections that allow experts to preserve a mutual understanding of the technical aspects of each country’s nuclear program. The verification of nuclear arms control agreements involves the use of sophisticated technical tools, such as nuclear reactor physics simulations. Because of the sensitive nature of the verification process, trust and transparency with common verification technologies is paramount. Existing connections between US and Chinese experts bolster joint the effort to develop verification technologies that are trusted by both sides. The current tensions and restrictions will prevent the establishment of these connections and jeopardize technical contributions to arms control.

Protecting global science from great power competition. The link between science and great power competition cannot be ignored.

But the degree to which China and the United States have entangled science in their strategic competition is short-sighted and fails to grasp the importance of collaboration in solving global scientific challenges.

The United States has engaged in a zero-sum game in science with China based on two false premises: First, it assumes that China’s science is still behind. And, second, it assumes that engagement with Chinese science will fail to make it more open.

Countless indicators of scientific prowess and performance show that the first premise is flat-out wrong.

As for the merit of the second premise, it largely stems from disappointment that greater engagement with China in the last decades has not led to a more democratic China.

Chinese science, however, is not Chinese politics. In fact, the gradual reforms on the governance in higher education and science in China have shown that the Chinese state is ready to liberate its research enterprise far more than its political regime. Surveys show that most Chinese scientists strongly support the principle of scientific openness and academic exchange, a study in PLOS One said.

In designing policies to engage with Chinese science, the United States should realize that preventing young Chinese scientists from coming to its shores will not prevent China from attaining leadership in important areas of science and technology. Therefore, the US government should avoid blanket bans on Chinese scientists, but rather manage selective exclusions in areas where there is actually a genuine security risk.

For its part, China should show the world that it respects the principles of scientific research openness and integrity, and its leadership should refrain from using science as a political tool. This would enable scientists in other countries to defend and promote collaboration with China. More specifically, China should allow scientists to use platforms that are currently blocked in China. This would likely increase the attractiveness of exchanges with China in the eyes of Western scientists and allow better communication between Chinese scientists and their peers.

While people around the world eagerly await the development of vaccines that will put an end to the nightmare they are living, they should ponder that perhaps COVID-19 was just the first disaster in a series of global tragedies that will fall upon humanity if the two major scientific actors in this world fail to collaborate.


As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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