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Perspectives: Decoupling in Science and Education: A Collateral Damage beyond Deteriorating U.S.–China Relations


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Deteriorating relations between the USA and China since 2018 have extended to education and scientific research arenas. We put the US–China science and education in a historical perspective and describe the win–win situation when both countries collaborated. We discuss an ongoing loss–loss scenario of the decoupling and speculate its far-reaching adverse impacts beyond bilateral territories. We call for actions to be taken for a brighter future by the leaderships in both countries.
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Decoupling in science and education:
A collateral damage beyond deteriorating
US–China relations
Li Tang
, Cong Cao
, Zheng Wang
* and Zhuo Zhou
School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University, Shanghai, 200433, China,
University Business School (China), University of Nottingham Ningbo China, Ningbo, 315100, China,
Department of
Economics and Marketing, De Montfort University, Leicester, LE1 9BH, UK,
Research Centre on Globalisation and
Economic Policy, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2RD, UK and
Institute of International Economy,
Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai, 200025, China
Co-first authors who contribute equally to the work.
*Corresponding author. E-mail:
Deteriorating relations between the USA and China since 2018 have extended to education and sci-
entific research arenas. We put the US–China science and education in a historical perspective and
describe the win–win situation when both countries collaborated. We discuss an ongoing loss–loss
scenario of the decoupling and speculate its far-reaching adverse impacts beyond bilateral
territories. We call for actions to be taken for a brighter future by the leaderships in both countries.
Key words: decoupling, US–China relations, science diplomacy
1. Introduction
The world’s two largest scientific communities are now witnessing
unprecedented yet escalating tensions ever since the Cold War.
Starting from 2018, dozens of prominent scientists in the US, most
of Chinese origin, have been fired or investigated for undisclosed ties
with China (Hao and Guo, 2021;Mervis 2020). These, combined
with continuing shuttering of Confucius Institutes on US university
campuses, strict limits on Chinese nationals studying or conducting re-
search in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
fields, revocations of visas for Chinese scholars who are already study-
ing in the US, the closures of Chinese Consulate in Houston and the
US Consulate in Chengdu in succession, and the recent Strategic
Competition Act of 2021 and the United States Innovation and
Competition Act of 2021 (USICA), are casting long shadows on the
US–China scientific relationship.
2. US–China relationship in science and
2.1 A historical perspective
In spite of ups and downs of the bilateral relations, science and edu-
cation had played a largely positive role in bridging the two nations.
In 1854, Yung Wing became the first Chinese to be awarded a bach-
elor’s degree from Yale University. In 1872, under his suggestion
and supervision, the first batch of Chinese teenage boys was sent to
the US, shouldering the hope of absorbing western academic ideas
and making China civilized and prosperous.
Funded by the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship and other
programs top Chinese returnees from America staffed Chinese uni-
versities in the early 20th century, contributing to the institutional-
ization of higher education and scientific research in China.
Historically, of the twenty-three scientists who were responsible
for developing China’s strategic weapons programs, nineteen had
foreign study and/or work experience, including ten in the US
(Simon and Cao, 2009).
Since China and the US established a formal diplomatic relation-
ship in 1979, an increasing number of China’s best and brightest
minds traveled west to study advanced science and technology.
Today the US has remained the most favorable destination for
Chinese students to pursue their studies. According to the most re-
cent data released by the Institute for International Education, in the
2018/19 academic year, some 370,000 Chinese students attended
American universities, on top of which, 48,000 Chinese scholars
were conducting research in the US, with Chinese accounting for
about one-third of the international students and scholars in the US
and surpassing those from any other foreign countries (Institute for
International Education 2020). As of early 2020, the total number
of Chinese in foreign countries as international students reached 1.6
million with at least a quarter in the US (National Science Board,
National Science Foundation 2020). Conversely, with the rapid de-
velopment of the Chinese economy, more American students and
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scholars travel eastward, temporarily or permanently, to undertake
research in Chinese universities. As reported by the Ministry of
Education of China, more than 492,000 international students and
scholars studied in China in 2018, of which 20,996 were from the
US (Ministry of Education, 2019).
2.2 The present situation
All these were in jeopardy under the Trump Administration. The
US–China trade war, soon after it started in 2018, has spread to
technology and talent areas (Fig. 1 chronologizes the major events
of US–China relations since 2018). Consequently, the barriers for
Chinese students and academics to study and work in the US had be-
come more tacit and politicized. China’s proactive efforts of attract-
ing talent through high-end talent recruitment programs had seen the
pushback from the US government under Trump, which initiated the
investigations into the involvement of America-based scientists in
such programs. Some American politicians also have called for ban-
ning Chinese students from studying STEM subjects at American uni-
versities. In a word, the US seeks to decouple with China in not only
trade but also technologies and talents. American people also have
turned more negative toward the presence of Chinese, but not neces-
sarily international, students on American university campuses.
The US shifting view of China from an ‘economic and strategic
rivalry’ to a ‘foreign adversary’ signaled its rising concerns over
issues from China’s access to core technologies such as chips, alleged
inappropriate use of intellectual property rights through forced tech-
nology transfer, and technology theft and espionage, to national se-
curity at the front of 5G technology and cybersecurity (Schneider-
Petsinger et al., 2019). Ultimately, the difficult technological rela-
tionship between the two countries boils down to intellectual ex-
change and scientific collaboration. There have been no signs of a
quick reversal of the relationship after the change of the leadership
in the US in January 2021.
3. Impacts on the two countries and beyond
3.1 Win–win in the past
Despite the current frictions, there was a long cozy period of US–
China collaboration that brought a win–win situation of knowledge
Figure 1. A chronology of major events of US–China relations (January 2018–March 2021).
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creation, sharing, diffusion, and innovation on both sides. Studies
show that the foreign-born and educated have contributed dispro-
portionately to the advancement of US innovation and science su-
premacy (van Holm et al., 2019). From 2003 to 2017, as the largest
source country of US science and engineering (S&E) doctorates,
over 80 per cent of the Chinese recipients remain in the US work-
force and continue their contribution to the American economy five
years after receiving their doctorate degree. In 2018 over one-quar-
ter of US internationally collaborated S&E articles had contributors
from China (National Science Board, National Science Foundation
On the Chinese side, in addition to its remarkable decades-long
economic development, rapid accumulation of human capital, and
technocratic policy push, China’s rise in science owns a great degree
to international academic exchange and ensuing collaboration with
advanced economies, especially with the US. Our analysis reveals
that joint publications between the US and China jumped from only
57 articles in 1980 to 51,583 in 2019 with an annual growth rate of
20 per cent over forty years. Combined, journal articles involving
Chinese or American scholars make up 47.4 per cent of the global
knowledge production indexed in the Science Citation Index data-
Chinese knowledge moderators with training in developed
countries, including the US, had contributed tremendously to
China’s rise in science and technology (Tang 2013). Within the
unbalanced collaboration network, learning-by-collaborating ele-
vated China’s status in vital scientific and technological fields with
surprising rapidity (Leung 2013;Freeman 2014).
America also benefits greatly from educating and collaborating
with international students, scholars, and entrepreneurs. Looking
back into history, the scientific, technological, and economical su-
premacy of the US has been deeply rooted in its capacity of tapping
into the pool of global talents via the conduits of foreign-born scien-
tists and New Argonauts (Saxenian 2007). In particular, over the
last decades, the US has been able to retain a significant amount of
US-trained talent, especially those at the high-end measured by the
possession of an American PhD degree. In some cutting-edge fields
such as artificial intelligence, the top Chinese-origin minds are con-
ducting world-class research in the US (Mozur and Metz, 2020).
Such collaborations between the two countries play a significant
part in pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge for the entire
3.2 The ongoing loss–loss scenario
While it will be years before we know the full effect of the current
US–China tensions on scientific exchange and innovation network
between the two countries, such effect could be felt in various
The impacts on China are significant. On the one hand, China
may benefit from the push from the US side leading to an increasing
and accelerating return of the Chinese academics and other profes-
sionals from the US. As talent is always scarce in number and unbal-
anced in terms of training, utilization, and distribution, both pull
and push factors could change the redistribution of talent on a glo-
bal scale (Bansak et al., 2015). While a significant number of
Chinese-origin students and scholars, especially those with US re-
search degrees, tend to seek local employment and permanent resi-
dency after graduation, recent decade has also witnessed an
increasing number of students and scholars returning to China upon
finishing their stints in the US owing to opportunities provided by
China’s faster economic growth, increasing attention paid to R&D
and higher education, and government and universities’ preferable
policy toward returnees.
On the other hand, in addition to the overwhelming amount of
high-end talent still residing in the US, the turning away of Chinese
students and scholars by leading American universities and high-
tech enterprises may mean a gradual cutoff of China from the
world’s leading edge in science and technology. Together, they may
slow down China’s ambition to become an innovation-driven nation
and a world’s scientific superpower, which may ultimately recon-
struct global value chain and geopolitical order unfavorable to
China’s modernizations (Lee et al., 2020;Wyne, 2020).
Decoupling China in science and education could be detrimental
to the US as well. The US has been dependent upon the mobility of
talent from countries such as China to sustain the development of its
scientific and educational enterprise. The loss of international stu-
dents first means financial hardship for some American universities,
many of which are heavily funded by the tuition paid by internation-
al students. The sheer scale of Chinese students and scholars contrib-
uted about $14 billion to the US economy and created 153,000 local
jobs in the US during the 2018/19 academic year (NAFSA, 2020).
The amount of money is non-trivial, especially amid the Covid-19
pandemic which already has put tremendous pressures on American
universities and the US society.
The chilling US–China relations could also cause innovation de-
ficiency which is looming at many institutions where there has been
significant dependency on international graduate students and aca-
demics, particularly those from China. Partly fueled by the timing of
a series of criminal investigations on scientists with Chinese back-
ground or links as well as accounts on tightened visa rules against
Chinese applicants, many American universities, despite being polit-
ically neutral and providing continued support to Chinese students
and scholars, are not short of anecdotal evidence suggesting that
political hostility has been felt by the community of Chinese students
and academics at various levels. This increasingly unwelcoming at-
mosphere felt by these Chinese could push them away from
American universities, R&D institutions, and high-tech enterprises.
Decoupling in science and education is also eroding trust and re-
spect from the people on one side, scientific communities included,
toward the other side of government. The unfriendly political envir-
onment and great uncertainties in bilateral relationship are enticing
unfavorable public opinion toward each other. The more severely
the collateral bias, suspicion, and even hostility between two nations
require years to amend, or even reach a point of no return.
3.3 The decoupling may not be justified
Studies have proposed a myriad of speculations for Sino-US poten-
tial confrontations and decoupling in science and education, ranging
from national security concerns, economic and technological com-
petitiveness, global leadership (Schneider-Petsinger et al., 2019;
Wyne, 2020;Sekiyama, 2019). Amid the complex and multifaceted
reasons is the US adamant belief that China has been reaping more
through research collaboration and globalization on an unfair
ground. In fact, the US concerns over China’s enhanced research
capabilities are not new. Over the last two decades, the consensus
achieved among the upper echelons of the US has been that
American global leadership in science and technology is declining
vis-a-vis Asian nations—especially China. China’s global talents re-
cruitment plan and Made in China 2025 Strategy further solidified
the stereotype of China as a nation posing unprecedented challenges
to American technological leadership and global supremacy.
Science and Public Policy, 2021, Vol. 00, No. 0 3
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Be that as it may, the decoupling is still not justified. As noted in
The Art of War by Sun Tzu, killing 1,000 enemies is often at the cost
of own 800 soldiers wounded. Confrontations could not resolve inter-
national disputes, at least not in the most rational and effective way.
3.4 Far-reaching impacts beyond bilateral relations
The weight of the US and China in the global economy and scientific
research means the deteriorating relationship between them is a glo-
bal issue. It not only hurts the two countries but also wounds the
rest of the world.
The ongoing comprehensive technology decoupling between the
US and China would wreak havoc on the commercial and scientific
bonds between the two countries that had thickened over some four
decades and may end up with having two distinct digital and tech-
nology jurisdictions. For example, the Internet might be turned into
‘splinternets’ and there might be two 5G networks. This would have
significant and more likely adverse implications for both China and
the US and the rest of the world in technology and innovation and
beyond. Therefore, there is urgency to reduce the scope and scale of
the conflicts and instead further expand cooperation in scientific re-
search and education between the two countries and other countries.
This is not just for the benefit of a specific country, such as China’s
economic development and technological upgrading, but a shared
development of humankind with the power of science and
Global production of knowledge is becoming the norm in many
scientific areas. The long-term ripple effect of the decoupling can
also damage the collaboration in the international research commu-
nity, especially in meeting the global challenges in areas from public
health, food security, climate change, energy, to sustainable develop-
ment, whose adverse effects could be felt globally. The lack of effect-
ive cooperation between the two major participants could
significantly delay the advancement of many of the above global
projects and eventually cause harms to all nations. The outcome
could be even worse if other countries are forced to choose sides be-
tween the two powers for research partnership.
Most importantly, we should not let the parochial mentality of na-
tional competitiveness blind all nations’ shared vision of sustainable
development as a human community. We should encourage competi-
tion but should not turn the competition into a zero-sum game.
4. Look forward into the future
More than a century ago, in conveying his vision to build strong ties
with China through education, University of Illinois President
Edmund James wrote: ‘China is upon the verge of a revolution ...
The nation which succeeds in educating the young Chinese of the
present generation will be the nation which for a given expenditure
of effort will reap the largest possible returns in moral, intellectual
and commercial influence.’ One century since, the Center for
Science Diplomacy of AAAS explicitly states on its website, ‘... sci-
ence can build bridges between societies where official relationships
may be strained.’
No bilateral disputes can be resolved without both sides meeting
halfway. Preventing further worsening of the US–China relationship
calls for the political wisdom of the leaders who take actions to
recouple education and science as a way of seeking common ground
while reserving differences. Rebuilding mutual trust and respect is
the key paving the way for a turning point of the US–China
On the US side, the Biden Administration needs to take immedi-
ate steps to prevent any possible and unintended disruption to the
country’s scientific research and higher education due to actions
aimed to cut off China from its research network with America. On
the Chinese side, efforts need to make in protecting intellectual
property rights. To give its credit, China amended the Patent Law
and issued a new Foreign Investment Law in 2020. For the former,
the amendment, the fourth time, aims, among others, to strengthen
the protection of intellectual properties by increasing statutory dam-
ages, introducing punitive damages, and shifting the burden of prov-
ing damages in patent infringement actions. And the latter law gets
more serious about protecting investor’s rights, including their IPs.
More can be done in terms of credible commitment and consistent
law enforcement. China may also need to contemplate both domes-
tic and international concerns over a de facto decoupling on the
Internet by lifting the restriction placed on the access to Google,
Dropbox, and many other Internet sites for academic use. At this
critical moment, natural and social scientists in both countries need
to be more proactive in promoting research collaboration and fos-
tering bilateral relationship. Global issues ranging from the ongoing
pandemic and future health crises, global warming, environmental
degradation, terrorism, and governance of dual-use emerging tech-
nologies such as artificial intellence, human phenomics, and synthet-
ic biology, all call for scientific collaboration and governmental
cooperation of the two scientific and economic powers and other
As the issue of education is that of future generations, youngsters
in the US and China and indeed worldwide should join forces and
contribute to creating a more livable human community by nurtur-
ing an atmosphere of encouraging cooperation without discrimin-
ation and by sharing knowledge and cultures without prejudice.
This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of
China [grant number 71774091], the National Social Science Foundation of
China [grant number 18BGL219], and Sino–British Fellowship Trust [grant
number SRG1920\100546].
Conflict of interest statement
There are no conflicts of interest. The authors are responsible for
any errors.
1. Authors’ own calculation. Data are available upon request.
We would like to thank Dr Sybille Hinze, Professor Jeong-Dong Lee, and
Professor Nicholas Vonortas for their insightful comments and suggestions.
The views expressed herein are those of the authors and not necessarily those
of the funders.
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... American and Chinese scholars had the most extensive and deep connections in their collaborative networks. The US was the top choice for Chinese students, comprising approximately one third of international students and scholars during the 2018/19 academic year, surpassing all other countries [29]. Simultaneously, with China's rapid economic growth, an increasing number of American students and scholars are conducting research at Chinese universities. ...
... Measures such as the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA) have severely disrupted US-China scientific relations. Comprehensive technological decoupling between the US and China will significantly disrupt both commercial and scientific ties, potentially harming international collaboration in addressing global challenges, especially in areas such as public health, food security, climate change, energy, and sustainable development [29]. Canada and Australia exhibited high levels of collaboration with both China and the US. ...
... Our study revealed that the number of original articles published by Chinese scholars has rapidly increased, approaching or even surpassing that of the US, which is consistent with the findings of previous research by Zhu et al. [30]. In terms of international cooperation, we found that the research collaboration between China and the US was the most profound, confirming the results of Tang et al. [29]. In the journal analysis, compared to the study by Badaluddin et al. [73], we performed a comparative analysis of journals across different time periods for a more comprehensive journal analysis. ...
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... These geopolitical disputes are exemplified not only in the trade conflict between the U.S. and China but also in industry-specific policy changes, such as the U.S. government pressuring allies against allowing participation of Chinese telecommunications companies in new infrastructure developments or limited cooperation in science and education between the two countries (Tang et al. 2021). ...
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Geopolitical conflicts have increasingly been a driver of trade policy. We study the potential effects of global and persistent geopolitical conflicts on trade, technological innovation, and economic growth. In conventional trade models the welfare costs of such conflicts are modest. We build a multi-sector multi-region general equilibrium model with dynamic sector-specific knowledge diffusion, which magnifies welfare losses of trade conflicts. Idea diffusion is mediated by the input-output structure of production, such that both sector cost shares and import trade shares characterize the source distribution of ideas. Using this framework, we explore the potential impact of a "decoupling of the global economy," a hypothetical scenario under which technology systems would diverge in the global economy. We divide the global economy into two geopolitical blocs -- East and West -- based on foreign policy similarity and model decoupling through an increase in iceberg trade costs (full decoupling) or tariffs (tariff decoupling). Results yield three main insights. First, the projected welfare losses for the global economy of a decoupling scenario can be drastic, as large as 15% in some regions and are largest in the lower income regions as they would benefit less from technology spillovers from richer areas. Second, the described size and pattern of welfare effects are specific to the model with diffusion of ideas. Without diffusion of ideas the size and variation across regions of the welfare losses would be substantially smaller. Third, a multi-sector framework exacerbates diffusion inefficiencies induced by trade costs relative to a single-sector one.
Science diplomacy has played an important role in Chinese history, including in the history of science and technology (S&T) development. While we may consider science diplomacy as simply a part of China's Reform and Opening-up policy, the fact is that even in the Kuomintang period (1925–1949) or the Maoist period (1949–1976) it was a key element of Chinese foreign relations. The targets and nature of science diplomacy were shaped by the prevailing politics and economic issues of the times. For example, the Cold War limited the breadth and depth of S&T cooperation between China and the West. Nonetheless, the People's Republic of China pursued cooperation with the Soviet Union and newly independent countries in a very steadfast manner and continues to engage with Russia and developing countries today. This article analyses the nature of science diplomacy as an element of both China's S&T development and its foreign relations. The interactions and practices at the intersection of science and foreign policy in China are manifold. In addition to providing a comprehensive overview, this article also highlights evolving trends, especially in terms of the deepening of China's linkages across the international S&T system. Finally, the article examines the recent impact of the apparent rise of techno-nationalism and how this has affected the nature of China's international S&T activities regarding Beijing's use of science diplomacy.
The decline might be another sign of politics affecting cross-country scientific collaborations. The decline might be another sign of politics affecting cross-country scientific collaborations. A low angle image looking up at the Department of Justice building with tree branches on the left side A low angle image looking up at the Department of Justice building with tree branches on the left side
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The globalisation trend of the past few decades, driven to a large extent by the proliferation of GVCs, has led to a set of significant changes in patterns of technology upgrading and new modes of interaction between domestic technology efforts and external sources of technological knowledge. Whether this new dynamic will lead to continuing increase in the economic importance of emerging economies will ultimately depend on whether their productivity growth will be driven by technology upgrading, requiring active and coordinated activity orchestrated by a variety of state and non-state actors under diverse sectoral, regional and national innovation systems. The new dynamic also reinforces the focus on local–global interfaces which becomes ever more important once we recognize that in the 21st century technology upgrading challenges depend much more on improvements in connectivity and on the industrial ecosystem. Still, the globalization process experienced in the past few decades—reflected in this collection of papers—may need to be recalibrated in the face of the drastic geopolitical changes that the process itself has brought about.
Chinese scientists constitute the largest group of foreign-born tenure-track faculty in science and engineering (S&E) fields in the USA, and have become a target of recent Chinese government efforts seeking to attract them back to China. This study examines the differences of collaboration networks between Chinese scientists and US-born scientists working in the USA. The findings show significant differences in the size, composition, and role of collaboration networks of Chinese scientists, and how these networks differently impact their productivity. The networks of scientists born in China are smaller, more dispersed, and less communicative. However, despite those networks and less benefit from traditional research resources, Chinese scientists appear to be more productive than their American colleagues are. The study improves understanding of this important group in the USA's research enterprise and also provides insights for science policy.
In less than thirty years, China has become a major force in the global economy. One feature of its rapid ascent has been an enormous expansion of the country's science and technology capabilities, leading to the emergence of a large and increasingly well-educated talent pool. Yet China finds itself engaged in an internal debate as to whether its full potential can be realised. At the heart of this debate lie a number of uncertainties surrounding the quality, quantity and effective utilisation of China's S&T workforce. Written by two leading experts in the field, this book is the first in forty years to address these critical issues. Building on exciting new research and a plethora of comprehensive statistical materials, its findings will have significant policy implications both for China and the international community, especially in terms of issues relating to national competitiveness and innovation potential
Introduction 1. Surprising Success 2. Learning the Silicon Valley System 3. Creating Cross-Regional Communities 4. Taiwan as Silicon Sibling 5. Taiwan as Partner and Parent 6. Manufacturing in Mainland China 7. IT Enclaves in India 8. The Argonaut Advantage Appendix A: Immigrant Professional and Networking Associations, Silicon Valley Appendix B: Survey Results: Immigrant Professionals in Silicon Valley Notes References Abbreviations Acknowledgments Index
Previous research tended to emphasize the benefits of international collaboration. This emphasis has led to a common belief that international collaboration will necessarily enhance productivity in science, innovativeness, and even societal impact. Yet, benefits and costs are relative. Economic actors and scientists do not perceive benefits in the same way in all contexts, and there are situational barriers to overcome for materializing the benefits of collaboration. This study examines the case of Chinese science actors who develop medical applications with nanotechnology, and highlights the “barriers to networks” when scientists attempt to collaborate overseas for an emerging technology. I present my findings with the metaphors of “pipes”, “prisms”, and “sponges”, and propose a framework for evaluating the utility of international collaborative networks.