China is growing as a university research superpower. Here’s how it could affect U.S. universities.

Kurubel Belay, analyst

Earlier this month, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine became the first U.S. institution to officially ban the appointment of visiting foreign scientists. The suspension largely impacts researchers from China and comes in response to claims that federally funded research is unlawfully being shared with foreign governments. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) opened up an investigation of nearly half a dozen universities accused of failing to disclose financial contributions made either by the Chinese government or corporations. Although the investigation is pending, it has left research institutions across the nation fearful that their research has been compromised.

Despite the recent attention on researchers from China–encouraged by the intensifying U.S.-China trade war–Beijing has been cultivating relationship with U.S. research universities for the better part of a century. Unbeknownst to most of the world, China has also quickly risen as a premier destination for higher learning–now home to four of the top 50 universities in the world. The meteoric rise of Chinese higher education has been the direct result of significant investments in both research and industry, thus impacting the global university research landscape.

Here is a brief overview of China’s research growth and how this could impact U.S. higher education research.

China’s strategic growth in R&D

China has rapidly grown into an industrial superpower, especially in manufacturing, over the past few decades. Implemented in 2015, “Made in China 2025” is the Chinese government’s strategic plan to upgrade and shift their economy into higher value-added manufacturing sectors (i.e., pharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence, aerospace) to increase the domestic content of core materials to 70% by 2025. The decade-long strategy includes significant government subsidies invested in research and innovation, targeting and developing local manufacturing, and joint ventures with foreign companies.

While the “Made in China 2025” report made headlines, it may have been the first time many were forced to acknowledge how rapidly China’s higher education system had grown—particularly in respect to research and industry collaborations—in efforts to reach their economic goals. Specifically, China’s heavy investments in research and innovation with both local and foreign companies and universities now outrank the U.S. and are yielding the intended results. At the current rate of investment, China could surpass the U.S. and the European Union in R&D expenditures by the end of the year.

The sudden growth is the result of efforts made by the Chinese government to strategically optimize the flow of knowledge from basic research to application in the marketplace. The newly modified structure of the national funding agencies and regulatory commissions has streamlined the process of publishing research and translating it into viable market products, making it increasingly easier for Chinese researchers to advance their research and economic activity while still competing on traditional academic metrics (e.g., publications, citations, journal impact).

U.S. response focused on espionage (for now)

Although the U.S. has been cautious of China’s growth following World War II, the immediate response from lawmakers has focused on the increased presence of Chinese researchers on U.S. campuses and how they may be negatively affecting American competition in research and industry. Congress has requested that the Department of Education investigate Chinese research partnerships with American higher education institutions, as well as boosting the FBI’s means of investigating potentially illicit relationships between individual researchers and China. Most recently, the Trump Administration has gone to the extent of reducing and limiting the number of student visas (F1) granted to Chinese students—particularly those studying in high priority field such as aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing.

Chinese students currently account for most of the international student population in the U.S., studying a wide breadth of subjects including foreign languages, business management, and STEM-related fields. Over the past decade, many campuses have speculated and/or reported their own researchers of foreign malfeasances, such as stealing intellectual property from U.S. research labs to then share with Chinese agencies and corporations (University of Tennessee, 9/2008; NYU, 3/2015; Duke, 7/2018).

These tensions have also increased suspicion of wrong-doing by the Confucius Institutes (CIs) across the country, which now number over 100 satellite branches of the Chinese government sponsored non-profit organization that facilitates language and culture learning directly on American campuses. Although inconclusive, in light of the recent threats of researcher espionage, several colleges and universities have decided to close their CIs out of fear that they could be used as sites of information transfer.

Implications for U.S. higher education

China’s model for research growth has global implications on academic research, particularly affecting the U.S. As Beijing continues to invest directly in R&D growth, Chinese research competitiveness and impact will continue to increase, thus diminishing the U.S.’s position as the preeminent research superpower in the world. Considering the recent deceleration in U.S. research funding, it will become increasingly difficult to secure the funding required to solve the most pressing issues and lead in global markets.

The path forward for the U.S. remains complicated. Although intended to protect U.S. higher educational research, the proposed student visa restrictions and regulatory orders stand to inflict immediate financial pain to tuition-dependent institutions as well as intellectual loss in research labs. Not only will researcher universities lose top talent in key areas, the U.S. risks damaging its longstanding reputation as the top destination for the world’s brightest minds.

But university leaders must also acknowledge that the status quo does not reflect the increasingly complicated global competitive research landscape. Chinese research universities have grown in prominence in the past few decades and U.S. research universities have benefited from these partnerships that range from sharing researchers and equipment to collaborating on medical and technological breakthroughs. Complicating (or discontinuing) these partnerships would have negative impacts beyond domestic labs—the early conflict regarding this year’s influenza strain first discovered but not shared by China stand out as a stark example of the future that could be.

Beyond the international politics that heavily drive these conversations, universities need to proactively consider how research collaborations with China are shifting and strategically plan for how they will remain engaged and thrive in a more competition and regulation-focused future.

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