Ellen K. Levy, Messenger, 2021, acrylic and gel over print, 40 x 60 inches

Scientific Cooperation with China


Finding Safe Zones for Science

The recent deterioration of the US-China relationship could not have come at a worse time for global science. With China’s sustained effort in catching up in scientific capabilities over the last 40 years, benefits from collaborating with China have already increased tremendously, and will grow further over time. These collaborations can help, among other things, to address some of the unprecedented challenges we are facing such as climate change and COVID-19. Therefore, in the political rush to set up barriers that impede science collaboration with China, Valerie Karplus, M. Granger Morgan, and David G. Victor, in their article “Finding Safe Zones for Science” (Issues, Fall 2021), offer some fresh and sensible ideas that are practical in preserving valued collaborations with China yet mindful of the domestic political reality in the United States.

The key feature the authors present is a framework that helps identify areas with potentially large gains and areas with high political risks. Such a framework can help US policymakers, including Congress and the Biden administration, to act in a more rational way so as to reduce the damage to the global science enterprise. In addition, if accepted by policymakers, the framework can be useful to the US scientific community by ensuring that people who engage in collaborative research activities in the safe zones do not have to worry that they would be investigated or charged some day for working with their Chinese colleagues. Further, such a framework can also help to identify potential areas where collaboration between the two countries may yield huge rewards. To this end, the United States and China should try to revive some formal or semiformal channels of communication in science, such as the US-China Innovation Dialogue that existed between 2010 and 2016.

These collaborations can help, among other things, to address some of the unprecedented challenges we are facing such as climate change and COVID-19.

At the same time, there are practical challenges in adopting this framework for policy purposes. First, putting different research areas into the four quadrants the authors describe is not easy. For example, technology standards in the lower-right quadrant can be questionable for some industries. At the same time, tracing the origin of COVID-19 is not intrinsically high risk. The rare incident of politicizing a pandemic made it high risk. A more fundamental issue is that in the current political climate in the United States, will there be changes in some of the basic principles held dear by global science community? For example, in the basic research area, people collaborate and publish internationally without any concern for where their partners are from and how their knowledge will be used. The recent US investigations of scientists who are of Chinese origin or who are engaged in collaboration with Chinese institutions undermine many of these principles.

Finally, scientists in the Chinese research community, many of whom studied in the United States as graduate students or visiting scholars, still treasure their friendships and collaborative relationships with their US colleagues. These relationships are the joint efforts of generations of scientists in both countries since the 1970s. They should be valued and cultivated in our joint work to address the common challenges we face, instead of being the victim of haste to contain China’s emergence.

Cheung Kong Chair Distinguished Professor and Dean of Schwarzman College

Tsinghua University

Cite this Article

“Scientific Cooperation with China.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 2 (Winter 2022).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Winter 2022