Cover: Scientific and Technological Flows Between the United States and China

Scientific and Technological Flows Between the United States and China

Published Jun 15, 2023

by Jon Schmid, Nathaniel Edenfield


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Research Questions

  1. What are the potential benefits and risks of U.S.-Chinese scientific research collaboration?
  2. What is the nature and volume of scientific researcher flows between the United States and China?
  3. What potential threats and benefits have emerged from the recent uptick in scientific collaboration between the United States and China on aerospace engineering research?

Scientific and technological competition has emerged as a front on which strategic competition between the United States and China is contested. Scientific and technological dominance — the prize of this competition — has been recognized as a national priority by high-level leadership from both countries. This dominance can be attained in two primary ways: A country can rely on its domestic scientific and technology innovation resources and activities, or it can leverage foreign scientific and technological assets. The researchers focused on the second approach for this study; in this report, they describe the benefits and liabilities associated with U.S.-Chinese scientific research collaboration. Specifically, the researchers investigated three types of flows between the United States and China: the inflow of U.S. technology inputs into Chinese military technology, the bilateral movement of scientific researchers between the United States and China, and scientific collaboration between researchers based in the United States and those based in China.

Key Findings

U.S.-Chinese scientific research collaboration poses potential risks and offers potential benefits

  • Publications produced via U.S.-Chinese collaboration have, on average, higher impact and are more interdisciplinary.
  • Although a U.S. research collaboration with a Seven Sons university or a university affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does not, in itself, constitute a harm to national security, bilateral collaborations might present national security risks if knowledge and technology produced in the United States are used by China to modernize its military or otherwise gain competitive advantage.
  • Sound policy will require assessment of the costs and benefits to openness.

Scientific research flows between the United States and China vary in nature and volume

  • U.S.-based researchers tended to migrate to a Chinese affiliation rather than leaving and returning to the United States. Chinese-based researchers more often returned to China after a period in the United States.
  • Most internationally mobile researchers obtained multi-affiliations at some point. Researchers who obtained a multi-affiliation more often returned to an affiliation in their home country or maintained their multi-affiliation rather than ultimately migrating.

U.S.-Chinese collaboration on aerospace engineering research poses potential threats and benefits

  • In terms of threats, U.S.-based organizations have coauthored more aerospace engineering publications with Chinese organizations with links to the PLA in recent years than in the past.
  • In terms of benefits, aerospace publications written by teams composed of researchers from the United States and China have greater-than-average influence and are more interdisciplinary.
  • Among internationally mobile researchers, returnees had the greatest influence via number of citations.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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