The Future of Global Science Relations
A DISCUSSION OFCreating Common Ground With Chinese Researchers
China’s scientific rise provokes strong global reactions. Research collaboration between North American and European partners with counterparts in China is now increasingly seen in light of securitization, asymmetrical dependencies, predatory practices, and general rivalry. In the middle of these heated debates, Joy Y. Zhang, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, and Kathleen M. Vogel are doing something remarkable: holding trilateral experimental online meetings that focus on ethical and regulatory issues in the biosciences, and reporting about it. In “Creating Common Ground With Chinese Researchers” (Issues, Summer 2022), the authors not only describe fascinating, often-overlooked nuances of the Chinese science system; they also are admirably honest about the problems they encountered in establishing the dialogue and about the learning processes and necessary adjustments. This sort of open, flexible, and daring approach has become increasingly rare, as moral arguments and calls for taking a stance in and on bilateral relations grow louder.
Of course, there are heavy challenges involved, and the authors describe many of them. For instance, they address the often-questioned individuality and agency of Chinese scientists and argue that the question is too simple (and sometimes racist) and creates unproductive boundaries. Being sensitive to the increasing political pressure on and control over Chinese scientists could, however, be an important resource in the dialogue. After all, it could be tried as a starting point of mutually discussing experiences of societal demands on scientific work, and more.
Yet the most important message the authors convey is that the decision to enter such a dialogue, and how it would work, is above all our Chinese colleagues’ choice. We in the West cannot and should not try to force that decision on them, or unilaterally exclude them from participating in the dialogue, no matter our reasons and however well-meaning we consider them. Moreover, different from how big platforms blend science, politics, and science policy together, intimate and more specific dialogues between scientists and scholars are usually harder to politically instrumentalize. And should that still happen, then that can be called out or discussed there, or rather be contested on the basis of intellectual arguments.
Another matter is that COVID-19 still largely halts travel to China and thus hinders personal encounters, making it difficult to add new people to the conversation. Current online forums favor long-established and heavily trusted ties. Fortunately, expanding the conversation by snowballing beyond these ties seems to still work. My personal experience with online exchanges confirms that more than ever there is a tangible interest, including among colleagues in China, in keeping up the conversation, continuing to cooperate and learn, and trying not to let external pressure and interference blur our views of each other. Giving up on this opportunity now would be detrimental. But the online dialogues can go only so far. It will be a task for different scientific associations and academies to put them on a regular and broader (and offline) basis in the future.
Finally, while intense exchanges about meta-topics such as research ethics and work structures are extremely valuable, in the end what will count most is that researchers factually work together (again) in postpandemic times. Especially in my field, the social sciences, research and collaboration opportunities were already significantly limited for several years before the pandemic, due to the increasing levels of control in China over access, data, and publications. In addition, wemust now address the heightened sensitivities in North American and European societies about the legitimacy and value of our collaborations. We scientists and scholars on all three continents must find honest and compelling ways to fight for the future of science relations.
Anna L. Ahlers
Head, Lise Meitner Research Group: China in the Global System of Science
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science