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The stakes of a swift U.S.-China decoupling

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the U.S. and China rewrite their rules of engagement, the open exchange of scientific research and talent between the two powers is under scrutiny.

The big picture: Experts warn a "decoupling" of the two global powers — unwinding economic and technological dependencies, as well as raising barriers to collaboration — would destabilize the world and put the U.S.'s innovation edge at risk.

"The openness of the U.S. system has been exploited," says Samm Sacks, a fellow at the New America foundation. "Now the question is, 'Is it possible to maintain that openness in a way that’s resilient?'"

Yes, according to a recent report from the JASON program at MITRE Corp. outlining the risks that come with international collaboration on research.

  • The authors report instances of foreign influence in U.S. fundamental research — via coercion, deception and theft of intellectual property.
  • While the picture isn't complete, they write, there is "a developing situation that appears to be worsening and that represents a threat to our fundamental research enterprise and, in the longer run, our economic security and national security."
  • But ultimately the authors conclude the problems can be addressed with existing ethics and disclosure practices, and that "the benefits of openness in research and of the inclusion of talented foreign researchers dictate against measures that would wall off particular areas of fundamental research."

What's happening: Lawmakers recently formed two groups to address — and fight — foreign influence in U.S. research.

There have also been proposals to wall off areas of research from foreign students or to restrict who can come to the U.S. to study in the first place.

  • Such restrictions would be difficult to implement in practice, says Remco Zwetsloot of Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology, citing AI as an example of a technology that pervades numerous fields, sectors and industries and is composed of different methods and techniques. "Agencies would have to define what they mean by AI — that is in practice a very hard thing to do."
  • It could also hamper American universities' efforts to attract top talent if foreign researchers go to Canada or elsewhere due to U.S. restrictions. "All you achieve as U.S. policy is to drive scientists out of the U.S.," says Zwetsloot.

Meanwhile, China is trying to draw scientists back to the country, and other nations are trying to woo AI talent.

  • So far, they seem to be staying. Zwetsloot found more than 90% of Chinese students who receive AI-related PhDs from American programs, for example, remain in the U.S. for at least five years.

The bottom line: A true decoupling that gives the U.S. no visibility into technological advancement in China could be "really dangerous," says New America's Sacks.

"Gene-editing? AI? These are technologies that are going to fundamentally change society, and if China and the U.S. go down completely different paths here, there could be dire consequences for humanity," she says.

But, but, but: "One reason not to fear imminent decoupling is that, even at its most successful, China’s model of technological development can proceed only so fast," the Economist writes in its latest issue. "When a technology is complex and expensive, progress is slow, as is shown in the manufacture of semiconductors."

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to specify that MITRE's JASON program wrote the report discussed.