Cover: Exploring Research Engagement with China

Exploring Research Engagement with China

Opportunities and Challenges

Published Jun 21, 2022

by Fiona Quimbre, Peter Carlyon, Livia Dewaele, Alexi Drew

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Research Questions

  1. What is the experience of UK academics attempting to conduct research in China/ with Chinese partners?
  2. What is considered best practice for creating and managing UK-China partnerships to deliver high-quality research?
  3. How do UK academics and research institutions manage any potential risk from such engagements?
  4. What gaps and challenges can the UK government help mitigate?
  5. What are the recommendations around approaches and tools for engagement?
  6. What are the identified opportunities and directions for future collaboration?

Research collaboration with China and Chinese partners has always been complex for UK academics because of several barriers to entry including language, cultural and regulatory gaps.

On top of these core difficulties, heightened national security concerns about potential transfer of dual-use technology and intellectual property theft through academic collaboration with Chinese partners are today rising to the fore and making research engagement with China even more challenging, if not uncertain as some political and industry figures call for the UK to disengage with China.

Yet, UK-China joint research partnerships also bring significant economic, social and scientific benefits to the UK, China and beyond, making decoupling difficult.

In this context, how can the UK government and academics navigate the complexities of research collaboration with Chinese partners and protect the UK interests?

Once again, knowledge and evidence are key to inform policy decisions. Any decision on research engagement with China requires first and foremost an accurate reading of both its potential risks and rewards.

To that aim, RAND Europe conducted an independent and evidence-based study into the opportunities and challenges of UK academics' research engagement with China, rich in qualitative insights gained from interviewing and surveying 80+ practitioners. This study was prepared for the British Embassy Beijing, on behalf of the wider Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Key Findings

  • The UK and Chinese research ecosystems have become increasingly integrated since the 2000s. Some indicators, however, have started to show a potential decline in joint UK-China research collaboration starting in 2019.
  • The integration of UK and Chinese research ecosystems has been particularly skewed to critical technology-based disciplines, including synthetic biology, advanced materials, energy, and engineering.
  • While available literature produces a great emphasis on the risks of collaborating with China, UK research organisations and academics consulted for this study overall talked very positively and highly about their work with Chinese partners
  • Some of the primary drivers motivating UK researchers' collaboration with Chinese partners include accessing Chinese leading expertise, tackling common global challenges, and accessing data and enabling infrastructures.
  • UK academics nonetheless continue to face several challenges and risks when conducting research in China or with Chinese partners. Some of these challenges are well-known and include difficulties in accessing funding and risks to academic freedom. Other challenges such as global strategic competition, the COVID-19 pandemic and a shrinking research space in China are newly disrupting research engagement with China.
  • Transfer of dual-use technologies to the Chinese military has dominated the media, but only a minority of stakeholders consulted have experienced this issue.
  • To mitigate any potential risk, UK research organisations have sought to expand China literacy, applied careful due diligence, and maintained trust with their Chinese partners. In some cases, they have disengaged with China.

Recommendations

  • The UK government, in an integrated effort across all departments, should help raise China literacy in the research community and the general population to build a resilient and informed research ecosystem.
  • The UK government, and particularly the Research Collaboration Advice Team in BEIS, should create and manage a repository of resources on research engagement with China to improve clarity and provide more guidance.
  • The UK government and other non-departmental public bodies of the government such as UKRI should focus future collaborative opportunities on areas of mutual benefits to the UK and China to maximise benefits and mitigate potential risks.

Research conducted by

This study was commissioned by the British Embassy Beijing, on behalf of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and conducted by RAND Europe.

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