07/14/2023, 14.15
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Chinese scientists leaving the US in droves, academic collaboration in jeopardy

About 72 per cent of Chinese researchers in the United States feel “unsafe”, while  61 per cent are looking into new opportunities abroad. Many of those who left chose China and Hong Kong. The policies of former President Trump have boosted the exodus. For academics, the benefits of collaboration outweigh the risks.


Beijing (AsiaNews) – Rising tensions between China and the United States and their political, economic and diplomatic repercussions are now impacting the world of science, already shaken by charges and suspicions between the two countries over the origins of COVID-19.

The new chapter in the rivalry and the latest indicator of worsening relations involves research. Amid an increasingly suspicious climate, more and more Chinese scholars are leaving the United States for other shores, threatening academic collaboration.

Chinese scientists living in the United States have contributed for decades to the fundamental research that has led to the development of advanced technologies. However, many are now looking for greener pastures, against a background of deteriorating geopolitical relations and tighter controls on Chinese scholars, while China recruits and retains more and more talent at home.

A recent study confirms that a brain drain is underway and if the trend continues, experts warn that it could deal a severe blow to American ambitions in the long run.

From semiconductor chips to artificial intelligence, technology has been at the forefront of competition between the United States and China, with both sides trying to be top dog. As a result, cooperation, even in key areas such as the fight against climate change, has been rare.

In the 2010-21 period, the number of Chinese scientists who left the United States for a third country jumped from 900 to 2,621, especially between 2018 and 2021, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down, this according to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). About half of them moved to China or Hong Kong.

While this is but a small fraction of Chinese scientists in the United States, it still reflects researchers’ growing concerns over the tense geopolitical climate.

After surveying 1,304 Chinese-American researchers, the report found that 89 per cent of respondents want to contribute to US scientific and technological leadership. However, 72 per cent also reported feeling unsafe as researchers in the US, while 61 per cent had considered seeking opportunities elsewhere.

The exodus accelerated in 2018 when then US President Donald Trump launched a controversial programme aimed at countering China’s theft of intellectual property, casting a chill over collaboration with Chinese institutions.

In 2020, Trump also issued a proclamation denying visas to graduates and researchers affiliated with Chinese universities linked to China’s armed forces.

This reflects the geopolitical confrontation between the two superpowers that spilled over into the world of academia and research, with lawmakers in some US states putting pressure on the White House to further cut ties with China.

“We’re losing a generation of people who are knowledgeable about China,” said Daniel Murphy, the former director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, speaking to Foreign Policy.

For this reason, “I’m concerned that the United States is going about this issue in a way that excessively focuses on risks of the academic relationship, without due consideration for the benefits. And I think we see this in a whole host of arenas, and that it’s bipartisan.”

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