July 26, 2019 / 3:49 AM / 4 months ago

Breakingviews - Review: Fighting the second Cold War, lab by lab

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - In 1949, U.S. President Harry Truman proposed to share the fruits of American scientific primacy with poorer countries. “We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas,” he said during his inaugural address. “The old imperialism - exploitation for foreign profit - has no place in our plans.”

U.S. and Chinese flags are seen before Defense Secretary James Mattis welcomes Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe to the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The lofty rhetoric masked a harsher Cold War calculus. In “Science and American Foreign Relations since World War II”, Greg Whitesides pokes holes in Truman’s spin. The history professor at the University of Colorado argues that both the United States and Russia used scientific output for diplomatic leverage. And as private capital took over 70% of American research spending, profit became a big part of the equation.

Today, as Washington and Beijing compete for patents, markets and influence, this history deserves careful review. The next scientific Cold War will be even frostier than the first one.

Truman’s proposal delivered real benefits. In its first year legislators dedicated $25 million, or $270 million in today’s money, to education, infrastructure and agriculture in the developing world. The aid budget has since grown to $40 billion. Yet American politicians disagreed about whether intellectual property should be shared, or used as a bargaining tool. 

Usually it was the latter, Whitesides finds. Assistance was conditional on countries espousing anti-communism, and funds were generally dwarfed by aid to militaries and police forces. Russian researchers and students were locked out of U.S. institutions as suspected spies.

Today the suspect scientists are Chinese. Washington is denying or slow-tracking visas for researchers and students from the People’s Republic, while investigators check out Chinese nationals working or investing in industries from artificial intelligence to cancer research. Some have been arrested. The U.S. National Intelligence Council alleges that Beijing’s “Thousand Talents” programme, which attempts to recruit Chinese specialists working overseas, gives cover to a government campaign to steal intellectual property. 


The irony is that China’s current scientific strength is a partial product of the last Cold War. When Mao Zedong split with the Soviet Union and normalised relations with President Richard Nixon, the U.S. government rewarded China with technology transfers in areas like genetics. Detente opened the door to cooperation between U.S. and Chinese institutions in fields ranging from forestry to particle physics.

These transfers, training from top American universities - and systemic industrial espionage - have helped to make the country a scientific force in its own right. The rivalry is intense: witness the difficulty Washington is having squeezing Huawei’s telecom equipment out of European phone networks. China is scoring diplomatic points with home-grown intellectual property too. Guangdong New South Group, for example, is trying to eliminate malaria from Kenya using artemisinin, developed by Chinese Nobel prize-winner Tu Youyou.

Meanwhile, America is retreating. Because the U.S. education system does not produce enough native specialists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), U.S. companies have imported brains. Nearly half of all employees with doctoral degrees in STEM industries in 2010 were foreign-born, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation. Most of them are Indian or Chinese. President Donald Trump’s suspicion of high-skilled immigrant visas has made his country a less attractive place for foreign scientists to work, and might encourage American companies like Microsoft and Pfizer to beef up R&D centres in the People’s Republic. That makes it harder for the United States to wage technological cold war.

Yet China’s competitiveness should not be overstated. It remains a middle-income country with a troubled economic model, and its schools are plagued by plagiarism and corruption. The country’s second place in the Nature index, which measures scientific contribution, falls to tenth, behind South Korea, when adjusted for quality and expenditure. It’s true that China landed a probe on the moon, but the Soviet Union was first to launch a satellite into space. Its sclerotic political system squandered its technological advantages.

As laboratories become strategic assets in trade wars, Whitesides warns of the dangers of nationalism: “Science is too specialized for one country to lead all fields.” He reminds readers that cooperation can pay big dividends. In 2003 a multi-national consortium of scientists quickly identified the genome for the SARS virus that was ravaging China, helping Beijing get control of a deadly outbreak it had tried to cover up. Challenges like air pollution, epidemics, and tsunamis require collaboration. A freeze of relations between the countries which together account for nearly half of global R&D will be expensive, and could cost lives. It is sure to be regretted.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

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