US restrictions on Chinese researchers ‘could damage world science’

Analysis of academic boycott of Central Powers after WWI prompts warnings over Trump administration plans

May 12, 2018
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Going nowhere: ‘the historical perspective allows us to investigate longer-run effects, which are particularly important if one looks at the effect of science on technology, where delays are often decades’

Threatened US restrictions on Chinese researchers could cause significant damage to scientific progress and technological innovation worldwide, scholars have warned.

Looking at the international academic boycott of the Central Powers nations after the end of the First World War, researchers from the universities of Bristol and Warwick and the London School of Economics have offered an analysis of the effects of limiting international collaborations within science.

“Frontier knowledge and scientific production: Evidence from the collapse of international science”, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, takes into account the historical boycott enforced by scientists from Allied nations (the UK, France, the US and others) against those from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire from 1918 until the mid-1920s.

The authors found that increasing barriers to multinational collaboration resulted in fewer papers being published by scientists on either side of the political divide, and also led to a decline in the application of new technology. Specifically, scientists who relied on “frontier” research – the sort of work that is produced by the biggest names from abroad – published fewer papers in top journals and produced less Nobel prize-nominated research.

Now the authors have put their findings in the context of potential US restrictions on the flow of academics and researchers from China, which are under consideration by the Trump administration. The move follows reported concerns of espionage and the acquisition of sensitive US data by Chinese scientists working at US institutions.

Should restrictions be put on the free movement of Chinese citizens, about 300,000 researchers could be affected each year – postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and Chinese tech workers at US companies – prompting concern from international collaborators at world-leading research centres.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, the authors of the study of the Central Powers boycott said that the analysis of historical events could provide useful insight in considering present-day policies with regard to research.

“The historical perspective allows us to investigate longer-run effects, which are particularly important if one looks at the effect of science on technology, where delays are often decades,” explained Fabian Waldinger, associate professor of management at the LSE and a co-author of the paper.

While the group’s findings note that the decline in scientific progress is particularly felt by smaller countries facing restrictions, Dr Waldinger said that it was important to recognise that “anyone who lost access to the scientific frontier was affected”. As such, research in both China and the US could see a knock-on effect from restrictions. “As long as the two countries produce at least some research at the frontier of scientific endeavour, scientific and technological progress will probably slow down,” he said.

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that although there were legitimate concerns with “Chinese companies and government agencies stealing intellectual property from US companies and universities”, limiting scientific exchange would be “mutually damaging in the long run”.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: US clampdown on Chinese researchers ‘could damage world science’

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