China, the vaccine race, and science in the 21st century

17 June 2020

Just over a century ago, Chen Duxiu famously called for China to replace “Mr. Confucius” with “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.” This was essential, he said, to “save China from the political, moral, academic, and intellectual darkness in which it finds itself.” While “Mr. Democracy” continues to elude China, “Mr. Science” – and “Ms. Science” – are now very much in evidence: Chinese scientists are the most prolific publishers of high-quality science in the world, save for their counterparts in the United States. Not surprisingly, China now aspires to be the first country to find a vaccine for COVID-19.

That would be a remarkable coup for Beijing – and it would show just how far China has come from the “intellectual darkness” Chen decried. There are also more concrete benefits to be had. The country that succeeds in immunising its workers first will also be the first to re-energise its economy. The country that controls global distribution of the first vaccine will enjoy opportunities to strengthen its geopolitical clout. And if China wins the race, some pundits will tout the superiority of the “China model.”

Nonetheless, a very different conclusion would be warranted, one that downplays national competition and focuses on the value of international collaboration. For starters, there is no Chinese model of science for other nations to emulate. The National Natural Science Foundation of China – a bright spot in the country’s national innovation landscape – was modelled on the U.S. National Science Foundation in the 1980s. China is also far from the world’s leading champion of basic science. China devotes only around 5 percent of its national research and development spending to basic science, while the United States and other leading countries spend between 10 and 20 percent. Restrictions on the internet in China have prompted bitter complaints from the country’s most prominent scientists in recent years. A few of China’s leading returnee scientists have left the country.

It is cross-border collaboration, rather than a Chinese model, that has fuelled China’s rise as a science power in recent decades. China has sent more students and visiting scholars to the United States this century than any other country has done by a wide margin. These exchanges, and the personal and intellectual connections they have forged, have fuelled the most extensive transnational scientific collaboration the world has ever seen. China has now eclipsed the UK and Germany as the leading source of foreign co-authors for U.S. scientists. U.S. and Chinese scientists now work hand in hand to publish in the world’s foremost scientific journals. In fact, when Chinese scientists published in Science, Nature, and Cell between 2015 and 2018, they did so with U.S. co-authors roughly 70 percent of the time.

Indeed, while the vaccine race is very real, it has obscured a more fundamental truth about scientific progress in the 21st century. For many countries, scientific progress relies increasingly on cross-border collaboration. Worldwide, the fraction of science and engineering (S&E) articles with authors from more than one country reached 23 per cent in 2018. Cross-border collaboration is especially evident among in the world’s top 15 producers of S&E articles, which had an average international co-authorship rate of 41 percent in 2018. If science has always had little regard for lines drawn on the map, that is more obvious now than ever before.

The world should cherish international collaboration in science – and it should take advantage of this trend to address the most fundamental challenges we face on this planet. In the immediate future, that means greater cooperation to address the COVID-19 pandemic. More generally, it means more concerted collaboration to address the myriad challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Nonetheless, the increasingly fractious U.S.-China relationship is making it difficult to sustain collaboration between the world’s two leading science powers. China has too often exploited U.S. openness to acquire sensitive technologies and knowledge through illicit means. The Trump administration’s wrathful reaction, meanwhile, threatens to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The administration has considered denying student visas to all Chinese nationals, and while it has not yet done so, the number of visas issued to Chinese students has fallen markedly in recent years. It is unlikely that a ban on collaboration in basic science with China would be imposed, but if the flow of students and scholars between the two countries decreases in the future, scientific collaboration in a wide range of fields could be seriously affected.

In short, whatever the outcome of the vaccine race, the lesson should not be that one system has prevailed over another – if indeed a vaccine can be developed. Instead, we need to step back and think about where we are headed and what we want science in the 21st century to look like. After all, Mr. and Ms. Science are not citizens of any country, but expressions of an ideal we should strive to attain together.

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Updated:  17 April 2021/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team