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NSF eyes science alliances on ‘steroids’ to meet China challenge

Scientists walk tightrope between U.S. law, collaboration with Chinese scientists

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan.
NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The National Science Foundation has been stepping up partnerships and collaborative investments with allies around the world, one element of the Biden administration’s push to build a coalition of like-minded researchers in biotechnology, artificial intelligence and other areas.

The increased engagement is the administration’s way to use alliances and democracies to isolate and outcompete China. The White House said in its 2022 national security strategy that the science and technology spending would enable the U.S. to “anchor an allied techno-industrial base that will safeguard our shared security, prosperity and values.”

But despite the friction between the U.S. and China, some scientists are still trying to walk a fine line: working with Chinese colleagues without violating U.S. rules. The benefit of doing so is, at least in part, to keep Chinese scientists in the Western world’s publishing ecosystem even as Beijing tries to build its own. 

The NSF — bolstered by a congressional authorization of $81 billion over a five-year period — potentially doubling its budget — is taking long-standing partnerships with allies and “putting it on steroids, if you may, with the CHIPS and Science Act and saying how might we prepare ourselves to be much more globally competitive,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in an interview.

He was referring to the title of the legislation enacted last summer that also provided $52 billion in federal grants to restore U.S. manufacturing of semiconductor chips. 

The “foundational  technologies of the 21st century,” according to the national security strategy, are microelectronics, advanced computing and quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, advanced telecommunications and clean energy. 

The U.S. strategy involves putting money where its mouth is. The NSF awarded $721 million in grants in fiscal 2022 to U.S. researchers in collaborative projects with counterparts in the U.K., Germany, Canada, Australia, Japan and India. “You will see a significant increase in the budget,” Panchanathan said about fiscal 2023.

In the rearview mirror is China, fast catching up with U.S. research and development spending. In 2019, the latest year for which data is available from the NSF, U.S. government and private sources spent $657.7 billion on domestic research and development expenditure, still above the $525.7 billion that China spent. 

Panchanathan traveled last month to Australia, where he announced joint investments “to accelerate groundbreaking research in responsible and ethical artificial intelligence.”  He has also traveled to Japan and India to meet his counterparts, and the NSF has been working with the scientific establishments in the U.K., Germany and Canada.

U.S.-India collaboration will include semiconductors, 5G and 6G wireless infrastructure, and commercial spaceflight, including lunar exploration. Another NSF program with joint funding from Australia, Canada and the U.K. is focused on clean energy and climate change efforts.

Panchanathan said the NSF’s emphasis is on “like-minded partners who share our values and share our aspirations.” 

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan met his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval in January, and the two officials launched a collaborative initiative on critical and emerging technologies.  

The use of science and research as a diplomatic and foreign policy tool dates back to the Cold War, but Beijing’s significant investments in scientific research mean it’s harder to isolate China, said Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

“There is a natural need to grow collaborations where the culture of science is similar,” Parikh said in an interview. “There’s a global scientific culture, and when we can grow those collaborations with India, with Australia, with Japan, with Europe, that’s terrific.” 

Collaborative investments in joint projects with allies “also brings their scale to ours” in advancing scientific research, Parikh said.

But Parikh also cautioned against putting too much emphasis on isolating China. The efforts by the administration and the NSF are more about expanding collaborations with allies “than isolating anybody,” he said. 

China’s scientists, typically, have either studied in the U.S. or have collaborations with American scientists. “Physics, whether it’s discovered in China or discovered in the United States, it’s the same,” Parikh said. 

Scientific bodies like the AAAS try to maintain ties with their Chinese counterparts without violating any U.S. regulations, Parikh said. 

Chinese scientists publish their research findings often in publications produced by AAAS as well as other Western journals, although China has “clearly stated they want to create their own publishing ecosystem,” Parikh said. “That would be the worst-case scenario.” 

“We are actively doing science diplomacy that is building collaboration with our geopolitical friends, but we must be actively engaging our geopolitical competitors as well. That’s important,” Parikh said.   

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