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A race for supremacy in global science and technology has kicked off as China has announced a raft of ambitious policies to promote self-sufficiency in scientific research and technological advancement, and the United States has mapped out a major push in science and technology backed by huge rises in spending.
Some fear the rivalry could lead to an emerging division in global science into two opposing science ‘blocs’, an echo of the military and economic divisions of the Cold War era.
But even those who discount such a rift in global science note a changing landscape in research and technology under US President Joe Biden, in part a continuation of the US-China trade war under predecessor Donald Trump, which sought to ‘decouple’ years of China-US research collaboration.
The latest UNESCO Science Report released on 11 June noted the economies of both the US and China have been “perturbed” since 2018 by the trade dispute “that has spilled over into the arena of high technology, technology transfer and intellectual property protection. There is a real risk of decoupling between the two countries in terms of technology and talent,” the report from the Paris-based UN agency said.
Many scientists say the increased focus and spending on science and technology can only be good, fuelling breakthroughs that benefit humanity and innovations that boost economies. But some highlight the risk that open scientific cooperation could be ending after repeated warnings that China was exploiting the open research environment in the US and elsewhere.
“There is a real risk of decoupling between the two countries [China and the US] in terms of technology and talent. Should this decoupling become a reality, this would jeopardise the commercial and scientific bonds between the two countries, which may end up having two distinct digital and technology jurisdictions,” according to Cong Cao, professor of innovation studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, who wrote the China chapter for the UNESCO Science Report.
For example, the internet might be split into ‘splinternets’ and there might be two 5G networks, “one for the USA and its allies and another for China and its allies. This would have far-reaching implications for both China and the USA and, by ricochet, for the rest of the world,” according to the UNESCO report.
David Zweig, emeritus professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), sees a clear US trend towards disengagement with China. “The extent to which the US decouples from Chinese science, that’s where it [disengagement] is going to happen. China has not been decoupling – it is more than glad to send people to US universities,” he told University World News.
“Biden is clear that China will not surpass the US on his watch,” Zweig said. “The US is the source of enormous technology transfer and Biden is still thinking in terms of serious constraints on this, so in that sense the US will decouple.
“China was growing really fast and surprised everybody. Biden has introduced policies precisely to keep ahead and also made it a key part of his alliance policies in Asia and Europe,” Zweig said.
Others say China still has a way to go in many areas of science in order to catch up with the US. But the fear is that China’s drive for self-sufficiency in science and technology could enable it to close the gap if the US does not ensure it maintains its lead.
The US Senate earlier this month showed rare bipartisan support in approving the US Innovation and Competition Act, which includes about US$250 billion for a raft of measures to counter China and includes the previously called Endless Frontier Act, aimed at boosting the US’s ability to maintain its global lead in research and development.
The act, which now goes to the US House of Representatives, represents the largest investment by the US in scientific research and technological innovation “in generations”, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Caroline Wagner, associate professor at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University and an expert on science and technology policy, told University World News that the White House Office views this as a once in a generation shift.
“They are looking at this as just a tremendous opportunity to make some really fundamental changes in the science and engineering system in the United States. They want to take rapid action. But there is some natural friction because it is hard to change a whole system like that.
“If you look at what governments are funding, they do act in reaction to what’s going on in other countries. But it is hard for universities to change direction that fast,” she added.
The new legislation authorises some US$120 billion for several US science and research agencies.
It provides a huge funding boost for the National Science Foundation which provides almost a quarter of federally funded basic research at US universities, almost doubling its budget over five years.
At the same time, it includes clauses to prevent China from stealing or benefiting from US intellectual property and includes increased scrutiny and the ability to bar Chinese involvement of government-funded research and a ban on recipients of federally funded research grants participating in foreign talent recruitment programmes such as China’s Thousand Talents plan which recruits researchers to share expertise and knowledge.
China’s official Xinhua news agency described the bill as being “full of Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice”, in its references to pushing back against China.
China’s drive for self-sufficiency in science and tech
Amid pushback from the US in the past five years on trade, Beijing has outlined technology and innovation as its top priority in its latest five-year plan to transform into a world power by 2035.
Its National Medium- and Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology (2006-2020) set a goal to reduce dependency on foreign technology to less than 30% by increasing domestic investment in research and development (R&D) and reducing technology imports.
A separate ‘Made in China’ policy set out in 2015 urged Chinese companies to become globally competitive in cutting-edge manufacturing to increase China’s global market share in areas such as electrical cars, robotics and artificial intelligence, new synthetic materials, biomedicine and other areas. With a strong focus on R&D, it was driven in part by a desire to reduce reliance on high-tech US imports.
China is now redoubling its efforts. A month ago, on 28 May, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed a meeting of 3,000 officials, members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the China Association for Science and Technology in Beijing and called for accelerated efforts in building China into a leader in science and technology.
Xi called for self-reliance and “self-strengthening” in science and technology, and for “resolute efforts to achieve breakthroughs in core technologies in key fields”. These should specifically target “global science and technology frontiers”, he said.
He also said China should “cultivate talent with global influence” and would continue to attract high-end foreign talents “to work or have exchanges with peers in China”.
“It is necessary to build a scientific research and innovation hub that can gather the world’s outstanding talent, and improve policies for high-end talent and professionals to come to China for work, scientific research and exchanges,” Xi said.
National laboratories, research institutions, top research-oriented universities and science and tech companies would be part of this drive. But Xi also called for more joint R&D with researchers from other countries – an indication that China is not ready to hive itself off from the Western system and still needs to improve its university system to compete with the global best on its own terms.
Wang Chi, academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and director of the National Space Science Center, CAS, was quoted by the official Science and Technology Daily as noting that the Chinese education system focuses on the input of knowledge whereas the American education system emphasises the cultivation of capabilities.
Therefore, “we need to accelerate the pace of reform to the education system if we [are] to cultivate innovative sci-tech talents for real”.
However, he also suggested that China was not ready to close itself off, saying, “The ‘self-dependent’ cultivation of talents should not be done behind closed doors but with a global perspective, as high-level talents are international for sure.”
China’s Ministry of Education last month identified a dozen research-intensive universities including Peking and Tsinghua universities in Beijing to help “build China’s advantage” in frontier technologies, according to a ministry statement on 23 May.
China wants to compete with top global universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University in the US, said Li Yi, chief research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
“In the past we were able to travel around the world to learn about the new scientific frontiers, but the West, especially the US, is increasingly limiting the channel of overseas study and communication [for Chinese students], which makes it more pressing to build influential institutions of our own,” Li said.
According to Emily Weinstein, research analyst at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University, Washington DC, who focuses on China’s science and technology policies, China wants to make its universities into ones “that will make Chinese students want to stay in China and attend these universities or work at these universities, but they will also [become] universities that will attract foreigners. It is a sign that China is trying to compete on a global scale or have more global influence.”
Alliances and a broader frontier
A major difference from the Trump era decoupling is that Biden is bringing in the US’s allies, including in NATO, the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised countries, and the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ group of intelligence partners, which includes the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
With the UK, the US this month signed the so-called ‘New Atlantic Charter’ in June. The partnership will include several areas of collaboration, including research, innovation, defence, security, law enforcement and intelligence.
On 16 June the US and the European Union launched a Trade and Technology Council to counter growing competition from China. A joint EU-US statement said the council would focus on removing trade barriers, setting global standards and promoting joint innovation in key technologies. Detailed proposals may include specific joint ventures to foster R&D around emerging technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence, officials said.
Ohio State University’s Wagner noted that science alliances were natural. “For four decades the US was the unassailable leader in science and engineering. There was no competitor at all. But in these four decades many nations have invested significant funding in infrastructure and research and developed their own capacities at the frontiers of knowledge. Now, we see many operators at that frontier.
“We call it the Endless Frontier, but the frontier is just getting broader, and as it broadens, no nation is going to lead in every field. It’s just not possible to do so,” she said.
“What does leadership mean in this international system where no nation is going to lead and we’re all going to contribute?
“The more open we are, the better we all benefit. As nations develop capacity to absorb, as well as produce, we all benefit from whoever is out there, developing new knowledge and pushing the frontier forward.”
Splitting into science ‘blocs’
Nonetheless, Wagner acknowledged that policy-makers in the US talk about the world splitting into two opposing science blocs, led by the US and China respectively.
“People at high levels are talking about this. But it’s a really hard thing to do. It may be that China and the US will say ‘we will go our own way’. Or the US and Europe are going to link up and exclude China. That may be a policy statement but whether and how that translates into changing people’s actions is a question mark because individual researchers establish these relationships over long periods of time. They trust these collaborators and people that they know and they’ve worked with,” Wagner said.
HKUST’s Zweig noted that it was hard to see a closed off ‘China bloc’ emerging. “China is pretty much on its own; there is only Russia that it could collaborate with,” he said.
Although the Belt and Road Initiative countries across Asia and Africa with whom China has trade and infrastructure agreements also have a science cooperation element with China, “there is little technology that they can transfer to China, and [this] cannot make up for decoupling from the US should that happen,” Zweig said.
Other countries in Europe, and Australia and Canada are becoming more cautious of China, “but they are not a bloc with the US,” Zweig noted.
To underline their close collaboration, on 16 June China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos unveiled details of their plans for a joint International Lunar Research Station on the moon that could eventually be a base for future crewed missions to the moon.
China has invested heavily in its own space programme and is now the world’s second-biggest spender with a space budget of US$5.8 billion in 2018, compared to the US space spending of US$40.1 billion, according to a report released last month by the Washington-based think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Ironically, China’s emergence as a space power was partly the result of investments after being excluded by the US from its NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) programmes.
“In the US there are really strong export controls and regulations on interactions between NASA and Chinese scientists. But now we can see that China is all over space and they’re relatively self-sufficient. And that came from being cut off,” noted Weinstein.
“The central thing that scares US policy-makers and policy-makers in Europe and Australia is that they are now noticing the difference – that China can actually stand on its own. And this is where we see ‘decoupling’, or the desire to split the two systems,” Weinstein said.
“There are people who say if we split the system and China does not have access to the initial types of technology they need, then China cannot complete whatever it wants to,” she said. This can even come down to the level of individual advanced technology components that China does not have.
But to go as far as competing research blocs – “we are not at that point,” said Weinstein.
Wagner said: “One of the paradoxes of research is that, on one hand, you want to keep people from knowing what you know. On the other hand, if you aren’t sharing, you don’t know what other people are doing, and if they’re doing something clever and useful. So it’s really a dilemma.
“At least there’s some part of that endless frontier, that senses, we really do need to outrun the other. You can’t necessarily close off; you’re just going to have to run faster,” Wagner said.