China crackdown ‘hit US scientists’ research quality’

US project leaders with history of China collaboration ‘saw dent to citations’

五月 4, 2022
US-China relations
Source: iStock

US-based researchers in the life sciences who had a history of working with scientists in China saw a slump in their citation impact after the launch of the Trump-era probes into US-China research collaboration, according to a study.

Academics in the US with Asian heritage were especially affected, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, with evidence of a “chilling effect” caused by the action.

For the study, researchers sifted life science publications between 2010 and 2014 to identify about 32,000 US-based principal investigators (PIs) who had worked with scholars in China over the period.

They then looked at how the quantity and quality – using citations as a proxy – of their work changed from 2015 to 2020, compared with a control group of about 70,000 US-based PIs who had worked with scientists based in other countries in the earlier years.

In particular, the authors wanted to see if action started under the Trump presidency in 2018 – including investigations by the National Institutes of Health into international research collaborations – had affected their publications.

The researchers found only a small impact on the volume of papers being published by the group, but identified a 7 per cent drop in citations when controlling for normal variances in citation counts. Further, scientists with Asian heritage, estimated in the data using authors’ family names, appeared to be more impacted “for both NIH-funded and China-funded publications”.

The authors of the paper, based at the University of California, San Diego, also found that the adverse impacts on the PIs involved in previous US-China collaboration applied regardless of their institution, “suggesting that this is a broad phenomenon” and not limited to cases gaining media attention.

As part of the study, the researchers also interviewed 12 scientists, including two who had had their NIH funding suspended, about the impact of the Trump-era crackdown.

Several of them said they were “less willing to start new collaborations with scientists in China, which has forced them to reorient their work toward other topics, and has been costly in terms of productivity”.

“We found that scientists with Chinese heritage experienced this chilling effect more acutely than those without,” the paper adds.

“The few scientists we interviewed who felt that their research had not been affected much by recent tensions were not of Chinese heritage. Several scientists we interviewed who were of Chinese heritage reported feeling under increased scrutiny because of their ethnicity.”

Although the figures on US-China collaboration had already been indicating that the political tensions had hit cross-border working between the countries, these latest data suggest that the impact may have been far-reaching, affecting individuals’ careers in direct and indirect ways.

Ruixue Jia, an associate professor in global policy and strategy at San Diego, who is also a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics, said that it was “striking” to see a negative impact in the data so soon after the NIH action and that this suggested that the full outcomes could be much bigger.

“If anything, our finding provides a lower bound for the impact of the US-China tensions, and additional impacts are likely to unfold in the long run. For instance, scientists are less willing to start new collaborations with China, which we cannot observe in our data,” she said.



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