August 21, 2023
BEIJING – Some experts in the United States are calling for the renewal of a landmark agreement between the US and China on cooperation in science and technology, amid a growing push in the US to cut research ties between the two nations.
The US-China Science and Technology Agreement, which was signed in 1979 and has been renewed every five years or so ever since, has become the subject of controversy as some Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns over whether it benefits US interests.
The current agreement was renewed in 2018 and will expire on Sunday.
US Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin who is chairman of a congressional select committee on China, and nine other Republicans in the US Congress have written an open letter opposing the agreement’s renewal over “national security” concerns.
Many scientists have warned that cutting ties with China would risk slowing US research progress, especially in areas such as biotechnology, clean energy and telecommunications.
“The letter’s arguments are flimsy, in my view, asserting security threats from cooperation on agriculture and atmospheric monitoring and voicing concerns about dual-use technologies and the interaction of civil and military R&D,” said John Holdren, who was director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House during the administration of former president Barack Obama.
“Risks from cooperation are reason to manage them to ensure they are much smaller than the benefits, not reason to abandon the benefits,” said Holdren, a research professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
At a recent webinar hosted by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, Holdren shared his more than 40 years of experience collaborating with China on science and technology. A number of former government officials and scientists discussed renewal of the agreement at the webinar.
Holdren said he believes that bilateral science and technology agreements, including the one between the US and China, provide “immense value”. One of the benefits is providing access to internationally dispersed science and technology expertise and facilities, thus leading to reduced costs and faster progress on mutually beneficial research, he said.
He listed several achievements of the US-China Science and Technology Agreement over the past decades, such as the collaboration of the US Forest Service with its Chinese counterparts, which advanced control of forest pests in both countries, and the collaboration of the US Geological Survey and the China Earthquake Administration’s State Seismological Bureau, which advanced earthquake science in both countries.
“Many members of the Congress and other national security ‘hawks’ are so preoccupied with the risks, and so dismissive of the benefits, that they are sometimes willing to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’,” said Holdren.
“That’s conspicuously the case today with respect to the US-China Science and Technology Agreement,” he added.
The Biden administration has been unresponsive to inquiries about accomplishments and challenges under the current agreement, which Holdren said was because President Joe Biden’s “freedom of action is constrained by the bad state of US-China relations overall and by politics around the 2024 election”.
Scientific relations between the US and China have worsened since 2018, when the administration of former president Donald Trump launched the “China Initiative” to target researchers with Chinese ties.
The now-defunct program, which resulted in some high-profile false arrests and prosecutions, cast a shadow over scientific collaborations and prompted many scientists of Chinese origin to leave the US for other countries.
The deteriorating scientific relations were shown in a study by Caroline Wagner, a professor at Ohio State University, by analyzing the changes in co-publication patterns between China, the European Union and the US from 2016 to 2021.
China’s collaboration with the US has been decreasing in the past few years, but China-EU collaboration has continued strongly, according to the study. It also found that China had surpassed the EU around 2015 and the US in 2019 in production of the top 1 percent of the most highly cited articles.
“As China becomes a hub of scientific collaboration, it is important that the United States remains a part of that collaborative community,” said Mark Cohen, a senior fellow and director of the Asia IP Project at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology.
“The proper question is not whether we should renew the Science and Technology Agreement, but whether we can effectively manage and cooperate with China in science and technology,” he said.