Science and international politics

The United Nations and many researchers have highlighted the essential role that international collaborative science plays in solving global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemics. The rise of non-Western countries as scientific powers is helping to stimulate this kind of global cooperative research. For example, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa formed a TB research network in 2017 and are making significant progress in basic and applied research on the disease.

However, in recent years, rising superpower tensions, growing nationalism, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have contributed to nations behaving more suspiciously and insularly overall. One of the results is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for researchers to collaborate with academics from other countries.

The near-global shutdown of collaboration with Russian academics after the invasion of Ukraine – in everything from humanities research to Arctic climate science – is an example of science falling victim to international politics and used as a tool. Scientific collaboration between China and the United States is also collapsing in areas such as microelectronics and quantum computing due to national security concerns on both sides.

I am a policy expert who studies international research collaboration as it relates to global issues and geopolitical polarization. I understand the need for democratic countries to respond to the rise of authoritarian countries like China and acute crises like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But reducing or stopping international research carries its own risks. It slows the production of the knowledge needed to solve long-term global problems and reduces the potential for future scientific collaboration.

Growth of non-Western science

Since the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the scientific collaboration has increased dramatically. There are several reasons for this development.

First, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to further openness in global scientific exchange. In particular, there has been an increase in the number of students from developing and non-Western countries attending Western universities. This movement has formed networks of researchers from many countries. Second, massive collaborative scientific efforts, such as the Human Genome Project, along with the ever-increasing importance of large laboratories and expensive research instruments have fueled international collaboration. Finally, the digital revolution has made it much easier to communicate and share data across borders. All of this has resulted in collaborative and successful research in many areas, including gene technology, climate science and artificial intelligence.

While Western countries dominated the scientific landscape of the 20th century, globalization has benefited many non-Western countries. In the second half of the 20th century, China, India, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and many other countries all significantly improved their scientific capabilities. In doing so, they have contributed greatly to human knowledge. China, in particular, has invested heavily in its scientific capabilities and is now the world’s largest producer of scientific publications.

Developing scientific capacity in many parts of the world and establishing academic links is essential when it comes to responding to a new virus or tracking climate change. The more countries that share data and coordinate policy responses, the easier it should be to contain a virus or understand global warming.

Rise of China, Western concern

Broadly speaking, three global superpowers are now vying for scientific and technological leadership: the United States, China and the European Union.

The U.S. government and the European Union view the loss of science and technology leadership not only as diminished economic opportunity, but also as a threat to the core values ​​of democracy, free competition, and the rule of law.

In May 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “China is the only country intent on both reshaping the international order and, increasingly, economic, diplomatic, military and power. technology to do so. Beijing’s vision would take us away from the universal values ​​that have underpinned so much progress in the world over the past 75 years.

The rise of science and technology in China has met with harsh reactions from the West. Australia passed legislation in 2020 that gives the federal government veto power over foreign research agreements. In the United States, the Export Control Reform Act of 2018 was designed to reduce reliance on China for emerging and foundational technologies.

Science as a political tool

Given this framing of research within the international competition between China and the West, it is not surprising that science is increasingly used as a political tool.

The US government has taken significant steps to try to limit China’s scientific progress and international influence. In 2018, the United States launched a large-scale anti-espionage effort called the China Initiative. As part of this initiative, the FBI has extensively investigated US-China ties in the corporate and academic sectors. The China Initiative has found no Chinese spies. But three US-based academics have been convicted for failing to disclose ties to China.

The China Initiative has come under heavy criticism from researchers, academic leaders and civil rights organizations over allegations of ethnic profiling. The Biden administration officially canceled the initiative in February 2022. But efforts to curtail China’s science and technology industries through trade sanctions against companies like Huawei are preventing US companies from doing business with Chinese tech companies. The China Initiative and the sanctions have also made researchers on both sides wary of collaboration.

The European Union has taken a similar position. He describes China as both a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival. The EU has set goals to increase European scientific and technological autonomy to reduce dependence on other countries, especially China, and started implementing the strategy in 2021.

China also uses science, technology and academic research in general to serve national interests. The government has explicitly pushed the idea that research must above all serve national needs, and Chinese researchers are increasingly under political control. By 2021, 18 research centers were dedicated to studying and promoting Xi Jinping’s ideas on issues such as the rule of law, the economy and green development.

Global consequences

Many researchers in the United States, Europe and China expressed concerns that geopolitical rivalries limit international research collaboration at a time when the world needs it most.

There is a major risk that barriers to international scientific collaboration will increase further, further undermining data sharing, research quality and the ability to disseminate problem-solving results. I often hear researchers, academic leaders and funding agencies in Europe, the United States and China express their frustration with the current situation. Many members of the research community would like to see a more open and global scientific landscape.

It is possible to work towards a future where science is more separated – but not naively isolated – from the evolution of power dynamics. As issues like climate change worsen, it will become even more important for researchers to establish responsible, reciprocal, transparent and equitable international relationships.

-The conversation

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