How US–China political tensions are affecting science

US President Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida in 2017.Credit: Jim Watson/Getty

Research is becoming increasingly embroiled in ongoing political tensions between the United States and China.

In the latest twist, several US universities are expected this month to announce the actions they have taken against foreign scientists caught breaking rules concerning National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, according to comments made by agency director Francis Collins to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.

Meanwhile, Chinese scientists planning to attend conferences or meetings in the United States have told Nature that they are experiencing significant delays in obtaining short-term visas. Those affected include star quantum physicist Jian-Wei Pan, who heads China’s world-leading programme in super-secure quantum communication at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei.

Nature investigates the circumstances of the tensions, and the repercussions for scientists and research.

What’s the background?

For several years, the United States has accused China of distorting global trade by offering generous subsidies to its favoured industries and restricting foreign companies’ access to its markets. It also says that Chinese policies are forcing US companies to hand over intellectual property in exchange for access to Chinese markets, and that its government has supported cyber-attacks on companies’ tech secrets.

After several rounds of negotiations to resolve these issues failed, US President Donald Trump started a trade war when he put tariffs on 818 Chinese goods. China followed suit with tariffs on 545 US goods. Further meetings between the two countries have so far failed to strike new trading terms.

How did science get sucked in?

Last August, Collins wrote a letter to the more than 10,000 US institutions that it funds, stating that the agency was concerned that “some foreign entities” were interfering in the funding, research and peer-review of NIH-supported projects.

Then, last week, Collins said that investigations at 55 US universities had found some “egregious” breaches of rules governing the agency’s grants — including grant recipients not disclosing foreign government money or diverting intellectual property from their US institution to other countries such as China. He said that some facility members would probably be sacked as a result.

What about other agencies?

This February, a memo from the Department of Energy (DOE) reportedly said it was banning its employees, contracted scientists and grant recipients from participating in talent recruitment programmes run by the governments of “sensitive” countries, over fears that participants could share government-funded research.

The memo didn’t specifically mention China, but the country has one of the world’s largest talent recruitment programmes, the Thousand Talents Plan, which, since 2008, has prompted thousands of Chinese engineers and scientists, many of whom had moved to the United States, to return to China. Researchers are given prominent positions and generous funding, and some maintain affiliations at institutions in both countries.

A researcher from the DOE’s Office of Science, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press, told Nature that the department is now improving its security policies for international collaborations in some research fields.

The US Department of Commerce is also updating rules governing technology exports that could complicate security protocols on a range of research projects. Even under existing rules, conflicts frequently arise for researchers — and the students and postdoctoral researchers involved — when they submit projects for security vetting, says Wayne Mowery, an export-compliance officer at Pennsylvania State University in State College and chair of the Association of University Export Control Officers. Sometimes, Mowery has to tell researchers that their Chinese students might not get clearance.

In such cases, some researchers decide to walk away from the project, and in others, young researchers are told that they cannot participate for security reasons, Mowery says. That creates a problem for the university, given that 30–40% of its international students are Chinese, he adds, and it can also affect recruiting. “If students are told they cannot do cutting-edge research at US institutions, they are…

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