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By Will Thomas
The emergence of China as an international leader in science and technology has been a long time coming, but only more recently has it become a flashpoint for U.S. policymakers.
According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators, Chinese public and private spending on R&D has been growing on average by 18 percent annually since 2000, compared to 4 percent annually for the U.S. The board predicted this spring that China could overtake the U.S. this year.
China also aims to take an early lead in emerging industries such as advanced manufacturing and materials and biotechnology by intensively coordinating research, technology development, and industrial production through government programs such as “Made in China 2025.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense (DOD) warns that strategic investment by China and other “near-peer” adversaries in fields such as hypersonic propulsion, directed energy, and artificial intelligence could enable them to match U.S. military forces in combat. To counter this threat, DOD has been working to increase the pace at which it transitions cutting-edge technologies into the field, and the Trump administration has tapped former NASA head Michael Griffin to oversee these efforts.
Similarly, Chinese accomplishments in quantum information science, such as its demonstration of entanglement between photons on a satellite and on Earth, have raised the specter that China could gain an advantage in quantum encryption and computing. Congress is responding with legislative measures to spur quantum R&D, including a proposal to establish a National Quantum Initiative partly modeled on the National Nanotechnology Initiative launched in the early 2000s.
Policymakers have also become anxious about China’s aggressive pursuit of American intellectual property (IP) and other technical knowledge. While cyberespionage and patent infringement have long been sore spots in U.S.-China relations, the government is now also focusing on preventing researchers from bringing IP and expertise from U.S. labs to China.
Notably, last month the Trump administration allowed U.S. consular officials to shorten the duration of visas granted to Chinese students who study certain “sensitive” subjects, which reportedly include aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing.
Congress, meanwhile, is focusing on Chinese talent recruitment programs that offer high salaries and research funding to entice Chinese expatriates and non-Chinese researchers to work in China. The largest of these programs, the Thousand Talents Program, has supported more than 7,000 scientists from around the world over its ten-year history. However, the FBI has warned such programs also serve as conduits for economic espionage.
A provision in the House of Representatives version of an annual defense policy bill would allow DOD to deny funding to research groups that include individuals who have participated in a recruitment program operated by China, Iran, North Korea, or Russia. The measure has bipartisan support, but there is pressure to modify it to avoid unintended consequences for researchers and universities.
Some lawmakers and scientific community leaders are more broadly worried that efforts to stem the flow of knowledge and talent to China could curb productive scientific relations and discourage Chinese students from studying in the U.S. There are also fears it could lead to discrimination and false accusations against Chinese and Chinese American students and researchers.
Responding to Congress and the administration’s focus on Chinese espionage, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, recently warned that “It is dangerous to categorize an entire country of people as a threat to our national security,” and urged ending “overly broad and xenophobic attempts to build a case that Chinese students and employees should be viewed with more suspicion than others.”
The author is a science policy analyst with FYI at the American Institute of Physics.
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