Rebecca Rutstein and the Ocean Memory Project, "Blue Dreams" (2023), still from the 2 minute and 40 second digital video.

How Open Should American Science Be?

In “The Precarious Balance Between Research Openness and Security” (Issues, Spring 2023), E. William Colglazier makes an important contribution to the ongoing dialog about science security, and particularly regarding the United States’ basic science relationship with China. As a former director of the Department of Energy Office of Science, I agree with his assessment that rushing to engineer and implement even more restrictive top-down controls on basic science collaboration could be counterproductive, especially without a thoughtful analysis of the impact of the actions that already have been taken to thwart nefarious Chinese behavior.

In our personal lives, we instinctively understand when a relationship is not mutually beneficial and when we are being taken advantage of even when the rules are vague. It is true that the government of China, previously operating from a position of weakness, has pursued a coordinated and comprehensive strategy to harvest US scientific and technological progress and talent through a variety of overt and obscured means. This is frustrating and not sustainable, not least because China is no longer the same techno-economic junior partner it once was. In response, the United States has taken some substantial administrative and policy actions designed primarily to shed light on relationships and conflicts of commitment in sponsored work and in government laboratories, but also to signal a meaningful change in our willingness to be taken advantage of. These are recent developments, and the effects are as yet not understood.

The only effective long-term strategy in this race for global science and technology primacy is to out-invest and out-compete.

Looking again to our personal, human experience, cutting off contact and refusing to talk even in a difficult relationship is a defensive posture not consistent with competitive strength or confidence. Moreover, a reactive strategy of shutting doors and closing windows in an attempt to maintain science and technology leadership betrays a lack of understanding of the fungibility of talent in an increasingly educated world, the almost instantaneous and global flow of science and technology knowledge, and the vastly improved intrinsic science capabilities of China.

I believe that instead of defensive measures, the only effective long-term strategy in this race for global science and technology primacy is to out-invest and out-compete. Given transparent scientific relationships not motivated by easy access to resources, we also should not be afraid to work with anyone and particularly in basic research. We benefit from collaboration in part because we generally learn as much as we teach in a meaningful scientific exchange, and in part because our open and confident engagement is a fantastic advertisement for the attractiveness and effectiveness—and, in my opinion, the superiority—of our system and culture of science and technology.

The cost to US science and technology competitiveness and the flow of indispensable new talent of a regime of distrust or punitive control may well be greater than any theft of ideas or emigration of expertise, and disengaging and therefore blinding ourselves to a nuanced understanding of where our increasingly capable competitor is in this global science race may likewise hurt rather than help. Perhaps we should evaluate the effects of the new legal and policy adjustments we have made already, reconsider our end goals, and understand better the costs versus benefits before making further adjustments to the openness of the United States’ amazing engine of science and innovation.

Former Director (2019–2021)

US Department of Energy’s Office of Science

I am sympathetic to the familiar and well-reasoned arguments that E. William Colglazier makes, but I can’t shake the feeling that reading his essay is like watching a parade of antique cars on the 4th of July.

The US scientific research community, overwhelmingly funded by the federal government and mostly resident in universities, is reeling from increased government scrutiny of its international engagements. Colglazier’s arguments and recommendations are thoughtful, responsible pushback against that scrutiny eroding the value—to the United States—of science diplomacy and international scientific engagement. This is all to the good, but hitting the right balance of openness and protections in international scientific collaboration is a sideshow to the center stage events affecting US commercial and defense technological leadership.

These main events are the struggles, both within and among nations, over the role of advanced technologies and innovation—driven in the democracies primarily by private companies—in a new world order of economic and military competition, confrontation, and collaboration (among allies). For the United States, the events center around the pluses and minuses of export controls of advanced commercial products used as sanctions; the impact of technologically advanced multinational companies on US technological sovereignty; government reviews of inbound and outbound foreign direct (private sector) investments; and legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which through its buy American provisions punishes innovative companies operating from nations that are long-standing national security allies.

We need a new playbook for commercial and defense international R&D engagement that can live alongside the traditional playbook of science diplomacy.

In the closing sections of his essay, Colglazier argues for leadership from the National Academies and professional societies for more personal cross-border engagement among researchers and government security and research officials. This is a good idea and may help protect the cross-border scientific research enterprise from the worst excesses of government scrutiny and oversight. But the voices that most need to be heard to navigate the current challenges are from the private sector, published more often in the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal than in more narrowly targeted journals such as Science or even Issues in Science and Technology.

Take, for example, the recent interview with the CEO of Nvidia published in the Financial Times. In commenting on the recent US prohibition on domestic companies from selling artificial intelligence computer chips to China, he pointed out that “If [China] can’t buy from … the United States, they’ll just build it themselves.” This reveals a fundamental underlying characteristic of the new world order in which commercial and defense R&D and innovation capability is already widely distributed around the world. A simple, seemingly reasonable action to protect US “technological leadership”—drawn from the antique car/Cold War era of US technological dominance—could easily have the exact opposite effect of that intended. I’d argue that we need a new playbook for commercial and defense international R&D engagement that can live alongside the traditional playbook of science diplomacy. The Biden administration is moving in that direction, by relying heavily on the National Security Council to coordinate the activities of groups such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health with the Departments of Commerce and Defense. In responding to current technological challenges in international economics and geopolitics, balancing openness and protection in government-supported international scientific research (and the cross-border activities of universities) is part of the show, but it is not the main event. That role falls to the cross-border activities and collaborations of companies, albeit enabled or impeded by a wide variety of regulation by governments.

The Applied Research Consortia (ARC) Project

E. William Colglazier offers a critical assessment at a very important time. Almost a decade of scientific exchange between the United States and Russia has been curtailed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Over the past half a decade or so, the same is happening with China and several countries in the Middle East. Even US collaborations with friendly allies have become increasingly difficult when risks are perceived differently. Data that US research organizations might normally share freely or develop commonly with collaborators might now be blocked if the parties don’t share the same point of view. In this context, I would like to add a few thoughts to the author’s excellent description of international collaborations.

First, it is imperative to understand and accept the arguments from the proponents of more research security as well as the defenders of unquestioned openness. They are both valid and need to be listened to. But a word I would add to the conversation on how to move forward is “trust.” There must be trust that the research enterprise and principal investigators want to protect what is important to the United States, especially when we see a potential collaborator doing the opposite. Today, the consensus that international collaborations provide benefits is questioned. At the same time, the science community has lost at least some of this trust—otherwise we would not be having these conversations.

There must be trust that the research enterprise and principal investigators want to protect what is important to the United States, especially when we see a potential collaborator doing the opposite.

The dialogue around protection and trust must engage those at the forefront, in addition to occurring within expert panels and small group discussions. Principal investigators must be provided with opportunities to gain enough information to help them understand any potential risks going forward and get trained in how to deal with them. Or they or their institutions may decide not to pursue a project further. In this matter, there are ideas being explored at the National Science Foundation and elsewhere to provide such platforms for information exchange—and we should all wholeheartedly support those efforts. If home organizations prescribe how to manage the risk, they should take responsibility for the outcome as well—good or bad. As always, authority and responsibility have to line up, independent of what system of control is chosen. Since the research enterprise, the government, and companies and groups in the private sector all benefit from international collaborations, they should also share the risk.

Lawmakers, science funders, and managers of the US research enterprise must understand the opportunity cost of not collaborating, or the nation will be overwhelmed by surprises, underwhelmed by progress, and forced to scramble. Every time I attend a conference in Europe, I learn about progress in emerging technologies happening in countries we have curtailed scientific exchange with. After a few years of learning only second hand, even in the small slice of science and technology I’m engaged in, it is increasingly scary. There are more and more things we don’t know. Not seeing means not knowing. I share this experience with many colleagues and it underlines the urgency to restart international collaborations in both directions, albeit with controls applied.

Colglazier concludes that there is “no need to fundamentally change a strategy that has benefited our country so greatly.” Almost 80 years of success supports this statement, as do I. But in every collaboration it takes two to tango. If one side changes the rules of engagement, the answer shouldn’t be to not collaborate, but to establish a security culture that allows a measured approach.

Science Fellow, Hoover Institution

Stanford University

E. William Colglazier rightly points out that scientific cooperation was viewed, 40 years ago, as a low-risk path to strengthen the US-China relationship. The shift in risk assessment from low to high over the decades resulted from China’s successful commitment to building a world-leading science and technology sector. However, the solution to the challenge that China now poses for the United States is vastly more complicated than one crafted for dealing with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.

US views on China have shifted rapidly. Imputing nefarious motivations to China, casting its researchers and students as part of a “whole nation” enterprise set on taking advantage of naïve American benefaction, differs markedly from the position espoused just a few years before. In 2010, US cooperation with China was noted by President Obama to be beneficial to the United States. By 2018, cooperation was viewed with suspicion, and China’s policy initiatives were met with accusations of fomenting everything from intellectual property theft to industrial espionage. The swift change in rhetoric, from China as a partner to an adversary, suggests political purposes rather than any change in the benefits of scientific cooperation. Chinese nationals and those working with them began to be prosecuted. Noting the change in underlying political atmospherics, cooperation between the two nations began to drop even as US cooperation with Europe was sustained.

The swift change in rhetoric, from China as a partner to an adversary, suggests political purposes rather than any change in the benefits of scientific cooperation.

Similar to the US relationship with the former Soviet Union, the current views on China, reminiscent of the “Red Scare” and xenophobia, were and are internal to the United States. These views are depriving US research and development of potential benefits of cooperation. Unlike the conditions of global research at the time of the 1982 Corson report, which Colglazier cites, when the United States dominated world science, China is now fully capable of finding alternative sources to working with us. Perhaps it was possible during the Cold War to “contain” the knowledge sector, but in the globalized world of the 2020s, where as much as one-third of all published research is multinational in origin, cutting off China serves mainly to redirect it to working with other scientifically advanced nations.

There is an unstated sense of betrayal in Western nations that scientific cooperation has not resulted in China’s political liberalization. The Enlightenment view posits an inextricable link between science and democracy. “Freedom is the first-born daughter of science,” said Thomas Jefferson, declaring that the enlightened citizenry participates in an ordered governance. In 1978–79, many US scientists and policymakers thought that if we would open our country to Chinese students and scholars, as President Jimmy Carter offered to China’s then president Deng Xiaoping, they would return home with new values more aligned with ours. Behind the science and technology agreements and the welcoming of more than 5.2 million students was the unspoken assumption that the United States would gift China with science, that science would enhance prosperity, and that from this would spring a more open, more market-led, and more liberal China. That this did not occur may cause some observers to reevaluate the relationship between science and government. However, to respond by betraying a core US value of openness does more damage to US science and technology than it does to China. It also does tangible damage to the bilateral relationship, making it much more costly than any sense of security that may ensue. With the asymmetries of the past.

Professor, John Glenn College of Public Affairs

The Ohio State University

Professor, Kenan-Flagler Business School

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Science and innovation have always flourished in times and places where openness prevails. This was true for the ancient Greeks and during the Renaissance, and it remains true today. The United States’ leadership in science and technology is linked to its joint status as a global economic hub and the home of a free and open society.

Science is the “seed corn” to many useful and valuable technologies. These technologies are commercially valuable and support national security, defense, and the nation’s economic prosperity. To protect these vital interests, key technologies are often controlled by governments and companies through security restrictions that limit who can access key knowledge or who can participate in the design, production, trade, sale, or use of these technologies.

Today, shifting economic and geopolitical tensions are again upsetting the balance that has served the United States so well since the end of World War II.

While these restrictions protect misuse of technologies, they also adversely impact the open environment that fostered their development in the first place. To maximize the benefits, this tension must be dynamically balanced, responding to the actions and behaviors of adversaries and marketplace competitors.

In his essay, E. William Colglazier takes a fresh look at the interplay between international scientific collaboration and research security restrictions. At a time when the balance is rapidly tilting away from openness and toward more restrictions, the author leverages his deep experience and expertise to remind us that the maximum benefit to the country is in the optimal balance, not in the maximum amount of protection. Colglazier effectively uses the history of US science diplomacy in past periods of heightened geopolitical tension, including the Cold War and the opening with China in the 1970s, to clearly illustrate the benefits of open scientific exchange and engagement, even at times of great tension.

Through examples, Colglazier reminds us of the benefits of robust global scientific engagement, from the Montreal Protocol implemented in 1989 to protect Earth’s ozone layer to contemporary efforts in the global response to greenhouse gas emissions. Most dramatically, he tells how US and Soviet scientists made significant contributions to the nuclear arms control efforts in the 1990s through their informal, nongovernmental “Track 2” engagement in the 1980s.

Today, shifting economic and geopolitical tensions are again upsetting the balance that has served the United States so well since the end of World War II. The forces causing this new imbalance were explored in the recent National Academies study Protecting US Technological Advantage, which I co-chaired. Our report agreed that responding to these pressures with restrictions alone will only diminish our country’s “openness” advantage. In his essay, Colglazier concludes as we did: The United States does not need to throw away its principles of openness but rather to wisely reoptimize its controls to find that balance point of maximum advantage.


University of Pittsburgh

E. William Colglazier provides a clear analysis of the growing tensions between open basic research and America’s concerns about its national security and competitiveness. He correctly notes that open research is critical (not optional) to innovation, and that America’s attractiveness to foreign-born talent has been our competitive advantage. He also notes that “politics remains, however, a more powerful force than science.” Thus finding a “balance” for America’s research institutions is precarious indeed.

I participated in one of the National Academies’ Roundtable discussions in November 2022. I was impressed with the skill and effort that both the leaders of academic research institutions and the national security personnel demonstrated when engaging in deep conversations consistent with the recommendations that Colglazier offers. To bridge the wide gap between these communities’ “open” and “security” cultures, people on both sides will need to strive to learn about all the players and understand their concerns. As in research, institutions don’t collaborate—people do. But only after they have built a basis of mutual understanding and respect.

As Colglazier points out, these concerns are not new. They have existed since the Cold War and are revived anew in each generation. Yet America has continued to lead the world in innovation. Our research institutions know how to protect in secure facilities that which is clearly identified as needing protection. They also know how to conduct critical basic research with colleagues across the planet.

Don’t ignore the need to prepare our students to understand, compete with, and collaborate with those from places where America will be competing for talent and innovation.

What Colglazier correctly fears is asking an assortment of federal agencies to independently define what needs to be protected. This risks a drive to the broadest—but varying and vague—“areas” needing protection. It also risks chilling needed basic research for fear that what was proper before may later become problematic. The solution here can already be found in National Security Directive 189, laid out in 1985: to the greatest extent possible, fundamental research should be unrestricted, and where restrictions are needed, they should be imposed by “classification.” The directive adds that each agency is responsible for determining whether classification is appropriate prior to the award of a research grant, contract, or cooperative agreement, and, if so, controlling the research results through standard classification procedures. This clarity eliminates the “gray zone” risk to both interests.

If I were to add a single additional thought, it would be: don’t ignore the need to prepare our students to understand, compete with, and collaborate with those from places where America will be competing for talent and innovation. We need to find ways in which common global issues (such as climate change) can be the subject of joint student collaborations. We might use technology to create “walled gardens”—bounded areas for collaborative research that does not touch the areas of military sensitivity—in which bright students at global institutions can work and learn together to analyze shared global problems. I might also note, by way of example and challenge, that Tsinghua University, a national public research institution in Beijing, China, now hosts a competition for analysis—in English—of issues focused on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Former Chair, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

Georgia Institute of Technology

Cite this Article

“How Open Should American Science Be?” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 4 (Summer 2023).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Summer 2023