Jun 24, 2021 - Science

A new world order for science

Illustration of two hands holding test tubes facing each other over a background of stripes and stars

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The world's scientific power centers have shifted — and now researchers and nations collaborating on science with the U.S. and China face getting caught up in their broader competition.

Why it matters: Both the U.S. and China are linked to other global research players that are poised to shape science and innovation in the coming decades — and that would feel the ripple effects of partnerships frayed by geopolitics.

The big picture: In 1999, the U.S. dominated publication output — a metric of intense focus in science — but by 2019, the global picture had changed dramatically, according to a recent report by researchers at Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

  • Today there is no one country that dominates overall. China, the U.S. and the EU are each leaders in a handful of fields. Breaking down those fields further reveals countries other than the U.S. and China — dominated by the EU as a bloc but also India, Japan and South Korea — produce more than one-third of the world's publications.
  • A Nature analysis published last week suggested the growth of collaborations between the U.S. and China, which are among each other's top scientific collaborators, may be slowing, whereas "the share of papers [from China] co-authored with some other nations, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, is rising."
  • Both Nature and CSET found an increase in international collaborations involving three or more nations. But some countries — Australia, for example — have higher levels of collaboration with three or more countries.

"A one-size-fits-all approach to research security and international collaboration will not be effective," the CSET authors write.

  • "The world that the intelligence and defense communities have built strategies on is gone," says Melissa Flagg, a senior research fellow at CSET and an author of the report.

Driving the news: Science is front and center in a massive bill focused on U.S. competition with China that passed the Senate and is now being considered by the House.

Between the lines: The new analyses underscore how interconnected science is today, in large part due to bottom-up collaborations between researchers and "big science" that brings researchers together around equipment, like the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator.

  • "It's not possible to decouple the U.S. from our international engagements. It is one system," says Caroline Wagner, who studies international science collaboration at Ohio State University. But, some fields — for example, biological sciences and quantum materials — may require careful, strategic choices about whom the U.S. collaborates with, she adds.
  • Countries that collaborate with both the U.S. and China to tap infrastructure, equipment and deep expertise from a limited number of experts in specialized fields face complicated choices that may come at a cost to their domestic science programs, Flagg says.

What to watch: How the U.S.'s and China's collaborators proceed under geopolitical pressure.

  • G7 countries earlier this month said they would establish a working group to protect "open and reciprocal research collaboration" across the countries. And the U.S. and U.K. recently announced an agreement to increase collaboration for emerging technologies, including AI, quantum computing and batteries, and to develop norms and standards for data sharing.
  • But countries in the EU, a science stronghold, "increasingly see a third possible path: Don’t pick either behemoth. Let’s pick ourselves and create our own ecosystems," Flagg says.
  • France, for example, collaborates with the U.S. in space via the European Space Agency but also cooperates with China on Earth-observing satellites, astrophysics and exploration.
  • Australia is in a trickier spot. Its alliance with the U.S. provides security, but it also benefits from scientific collaborations with both the U.S. and, increasingly, China.

The bottom line: "This idea of decoupling isn’t a choice we make by ourselves," Flagg says of the U.S. "And it is a difficult choice to ask others to make."

Go deeper:

  • How the COVID pandemic is changing global science collaborations (Nature)
  • As U.S. and China fight, their scientists collaborate (Axios)
Go deeper