Straight Talk: Don’t “Dis” Chinese Science

Considering the worldwide attention being paid to the growing economic, technological, and scientific prowess of China, one would expect that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the U.S. Department of State would be devoting significant attention to the annual meeting at which U.S. and Chinese leaders discuss scientific cooperation. That would be wrong. Those meetings are scripted affairs concerned more with protocol than science.

China trails behind only the United States and Japan in investment in science and technology (S&T), and its pool of scientifically trained human resources is also among the top three in the world. In 2003, China became the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI), surpassing the United States. Chinese manufactured goods are everywhere. Lenovo Computers, a Chinese firm spun off from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, recently concluded an agreement to produce IBM personal computers. As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has put it, in a period of 30 years we will have witnessed the transition from “sold in China” to “made in China” to “designed in China” to “dreamed up in China.”

China’s growing strengths and capabilities should be neither surprising nor alarming. This is what one should expect from a nation that has always respected learning and that now feels ready to assume its proper place in the world. What should alarm us, however, is how ill-equipped the United States is to understand these developments and their implications.

The U.S. government’s apparatus for focusing on China’s S&T, let alone on its growing capacity for innovation, is woefully inadequate and scattered. OSTP is nominally in charge of conducting the U.S.-China Joint Commission Meeting (JCM) on Cooperation in Science and Technology roughly every two years under the U.S.-China S&T Agreement. The State Department’s Office of Environment, Science, and Technology (OES) is also involved. The JCM is supposed to provide policy leadership to the government-to-government S&T relationship. However, what actually happens is quite different.

Several months before an impending JCM, the OES begins holding meetings of the ad hoc Interagency Working Group on U.S.-China S&T Cooperation, which includes representatives from the key S&T agencies. A central goal of the interagency meetings is to review suggestions for increased cooperation—usually coming from the Chinese side—and to elicit suggestions from the U.S. agencies. On the U.S. side, no funds are budgeted for cooperative activities with China, so it is a challenge for the agency representatives to come up with creative ideas for enhancing the relationship. Usually they search through their already funded domestic programs to see what areas can be beneficially shared with Chinese counterparts.

The lack of funding is so severe that the results can be farcical. For example, neither OSTP nor State has enough money even to host a dinner for the foreign guests. The hat is usually passed around to the better-funded agencies, who themselves must find creative ways of providing the paltry amounts needed. The amount of staff time spent in doing this would shock the public.

The U.S. private sector has much more extensive interaction with China, but the United States does not even monitor this interaction consistently to ensure that U.S. interests are being protected. During the 1970s, before formal relations were established with China, government agencies and private foundations supported the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC), which was located in the National Academy of Sciences and composed of eminent scientists and China scholars. The committee played an active role in guiding the S&T relationship, but once diplomatic relations were established in 1979, government agencies began to withdraw their financial support under the assumption that the government itself would be doing what the committee did. That did not happen.

One of the few activities focusing on S&T relations with China is the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which examines whether joint activities could provide China with S&T information beneficial to its military. This hardly qualifies as cooperation. Universities are not much better. Although there are specialized academic experts who understand where China is heading in terms of economy, security, commerce, law, and trade, the number of scholars who know anything about China’s S&T is woefully inadequate. Most of them are aging, and there is no one in the pipeline to replace them. At the same time, there are hundreds of U.S. scientists and engineers working on their own initiative with Chinese colleagues on cooperative research projects. Government makes no effort to tap their connections or insights.

A few encouraging indications of what can be done do exist. For the past six years, the National Science Foundation has supported a George Mason University program that sponsors a series of policy dialogues at which leading Chinese and U.S. scientists, engineers, and government representatives explore the important global science issues for the knowledge-based economies of the 21st century. OSTP, recognizing the value of such dialogues, has agreed with the Ministry of Science and Technology of China to hold a comparative science policy dialogue at the next meeting of the JCM. Texas A&M University organized an extremely effective meeting in November 2003 of several hundred U.S. and Chinese researchers and government officials to review U.S.-China relations past, present, and future and to explore ways of working together. Most recently (September 2005), the Levin Institute of the State University of New York launched its Center for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation in China (CSTIC). These efforts are pointed in the right direction, but much more is needed.

Other countries have moved much more quickly in initiating creative programs with the Chinese. France has established joint laboratories with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on catalysis and public health. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft has built the Sino-German Center for Research Promotion on the grounds of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, where German scholars and Chinese scholars may interact. European Union scholars are actively pursuing a common dialogue on the impact of China’s growing capacities in these areas. Britain, France, and Germany are actively recruiting Chinese students and scholars to their universities and research laboratories. The Chinese are understandably turning to these countries for the development of new partnerships.

The U.S. government should initiate a national dialogue with representatives from industry and academia to establish a strategy for ensuring that the nation has the capacity to understand what is happening in China and to help develop joint activities of benefit to both countries. It should establish academic centers that will educate the next generation of scholars capable of understanding global science, technology, and innovation and their broad impact on all important aspects of our global relationships, including the spread of democracy, security, trade, commerce, and politics. Such centers would bring together scientists and engineers engaged in cooperation with other countries, scholars and students who understand the broad importance of these relationships, and industry representatives engaged in global competition so that all may benefit from each others’ viewpoints and expertise. The centers could also produce the research and expertise that the government needs to help it guide its S&T relationships with other countries, such as China, and to make it possible to capitalize quickly on opportunities to work with other countries. Although this will not solve all the problems, it would be an important component of building an overall strategy. Future U.S. leadership in science, technology, and innovation will depend to a growing extent on its ability to cooperate creatively with other S&T powers, and China will undoubtedly be among them.

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Cite this Article

Angelis, Alexander P. De. “Straight Talk: Don’t “Dis” Chinese Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 3 (Spring 2006).

Vol. XXII, No. 3, Spring 2006