US universities’ China dilemma ‘won’t go away’ under Biden

Budgets and foreign ties likely constrained even with friendlier administration

November 23, 2020
An official poll watcher uses binoculars as workers count ballots for the 2020 Presidential election.
Source: Getty

US research universities have tempered hopes for a Biden administration boost in their budgets and overseas partnerships, seeing security and political complications well beyond Donald Trump’s anti-science and nativist antagonisms.

In part, according to the main grouping of US research universities, this was because Mr Trump caused far less harm to their operations than he threatened, and in part, such academic leaders believe, because a government led by Joe Biden will still struggle to balance the need for global teamwork with the need for national security.

“This is going to be a continual fight,” Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities, said of the quest for clear, consistent and balanced guidelines for US scientists seeking partners from abroad.

From the perspective of academic science, the Trump administration was marked by annual threats to cut the federal research investment, and regular efforts to make conditions tough for US and foreign scientists looking to work with each other.

The international complications have been due largely to fears of foreign espionage, mostly centring on China, and a general Trump administration philosophy that the US should discourage non-citizens from entering the country.

Mr Biden’s friendlier attitude toward foreigners, by itself, won’t be enough to overcome real concerns within US intelligence and law-enforcement communities about the threat they see from China and other potentially hostile nations, Mr Smith said.

Regardless of the administration, he said, federal security officials tend to seek broad restrictions, sometimes covering entire fields of study.

That can harm the development of US capabilities in fields such as artificial intelligence because other countries – including China – may have reached breakthroughs that US scientists have not yet achieved, Mr Smith said.

“The more we put walls around broader things in our country, the more walls we put up around that knowledge in other countries,” he said.

And Mr Biden’s approach to China, in particular, may not be significantly softer, Mr Smith said, given serious concerns within the Democratic party about China’s record on human rights and democracy.

The situation, he said, should serve as a warning to US universities – which have grown to depend heavily on Chinese students and researchers – that the time to find a more diverse set of options was approaching.

“We have to rethink everything going forward” in terms of finding students and scientists, Mr Smith said. “We would be naive to think that it was going to continue forever,” he said of the current high levels of Chinese student interest.

In terms of spending on science, Mr Trump took office in 2017 pursuing a budget proposal that would have slashed federal research spending by 17 per cent, and then urged similar multibillion-dollar reductions each year afterwards.

But lawmakers from both parties refused, pushing budget plans through Congress that gave scientific research funding modest but steady annual gains. That’s expected to continue, with even greater emphasis on health fields led by cancer, which became a matter of deep personal interest to Mr Biden after the 2015 death of his son Beau.

“Congress has done pretty well by research funding” during the Trump administration, Mr Smith said. “It is unclear if we will see huge changes” in funding levels during the Biden administration, he said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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