The number of scientists in both China and the United States associated with research papers has fallen by more than 20% in the past three years, an analysis of Nature has found. That slump appears to be part of a pattern of dwindling cooperation between the US and China that is beginning to show up in research databases. The number of articles collaborating between authors in the United States and China — the world’s two largest research producers — also fell for the first time last year.
These signs of dwindling cooperation are at least in part a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists say, but also political tensions. These include the effects of the United States’ controversial “China Initiative,” a spy prevention policy that targeted many American academics for failing to disclose some of their work or funding in China. “We are starting to see the damaging effects that come from a combination of reduced mobility and increased politicization,” said Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. “Having a double hookup was once seen as a badge of honor but is now colored by the concerns of scientific espionage,” she says.
The US government appears to be dropping its decades-long support for scientific collaboration with China, just as some of China’s research is world-class, said Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “If the United States stops collaborating with China, we’ll cut off our access to much of what’s going on in the scientific world,” she says.
Duplicate connection rejection
The dual preference analysis was performed for: Nature by Jeroen Baas, director of analytics at the Amsterdam publishing house Elsevier. Baas looked at the authors of millions of articles in Elsevier’s Scopus database and found that the number of authors reporting a double US-China affiliation for at least one publication per year had risen above 15,000 in 2018, but had fallen to under 12,500 by 2021 (see ‘Double preferences’). This trap lasted more than any other pair of nations, Baas found; and it happened even as the global number of authors who revealed multiple preferences continued to rise.
The pattern may help explain how publications with co-authors from China and the United States also fell in 2021, Scopus figures show, even as total production in the US and China both increases. Baas’s analysis suggests that there has been a much stronger decline among the subset of these publications with doubly affiliated authors (see ‘China-US collaboration’).
In February, Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University in Columbus and Xiaojing Cai of Yangzhou University in China used Web of Science data to show that US-China co-authors declined in share of world publications, while papers with co-authors from China and the European Union were not. They also published a table suggesting that the number of articles with doubly affiliated American-Chinese authors has experienced a sharper decline.1†
Pandemic and Politics
Zhang and five other specialists contacted by Nature said greater politicization of US-Chinese science, as well as the pandemic, played a role. As early as 2015-16, Zhang says, it became more difficult for foreign academics to get visas to visit China, and for Chinese researchers to travel abroad. And starting in 2018, the US government’s China Initiative began investigating hundreds of US-based scientists about their collaborations in China. Researchers say this program, along with tougher US visa restrictions and tightened export controls, has dampened bilateral research partnerships between the US and China and prevented scientists in China from visiting the United States. The initiative was effectively terminated this year, but China has been included in a broader “U.S. Justice Department’s Counter Threat Counter Strategy.”
In 2021, a survey of nearly 2,000 scientists in the United States found that about half of respondents of Chinese descent experienced fear or anxiety that they were being watched by the US government, and more than non-Chinese scientists said they were had stopped collaborations with researchers in China in the past three years. “My general concern on the American side is the extent to which cooperation with China is being criminalized even after the China initiative,” said Jenny Lee, a social scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who was one of the co-authors of the survey.
She and John Haupt, also at the University of Tucson, interviewed scientists based in the US and China to study how they collaborated on COVID-19 research. Their work, unpublished, shows that pandemic travel and visa restrictions prevented many Chinese scientists from visiting the United States — and the researchers also reported political restrictions. “Some scientists have been asked by their institutions to cut ties with Chinese scientists and stop hiring postdocs from China,” Haupt said.
Double ties don’t always have to mean double employment or funding, says Li Tang, a science and innovation researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, who published a paper last year on the negative effects of the worsening spread. of US-China bilateral relations in education and research2† They may be reported as a courtesy by an academic to an institution they visited that provided them with research assistance, or at the request of the institution visited, she notes.
Data obtained from research papers is also a lagging indicator of actual activity, as publications may not appear until years after a study is conducted. And the specific reasons behind the decline in collaboration and dual affiliation may differ across disciplines and institutions, Zhang notes. Still, she says it’s reasonable to suspect that deteriorating political relations, including the China Initiative, have made researchers and universities in both countries hesitant to forge and strengthen collaborations.
China’s national policies can also affect publication data, Lee adds: In 2020, for example, the government said there should be less focus on evaluating researchers on the extent of their work in international journal databases, and more on the quality of their papers. They were also urged to consider publishing in Chinese magazines. That may now be starting to seep into data indexed in Scopus or Web of Science, which focuses on English-language journals. Tang says it will be important to see if declining collaboration patterns continue into the future.
“Unfortunately, this all seems to be political on both sides,” Wagner added. “Science will suffer.”