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New US-China Tariffs Could Affect Science

The list of imports subject to additional taxes include products used in research, but the effect of the trade dispute is still unclear.

Jun 27, 2018
Diana Kwon

On June 15, the Office of the United States Trade Representative released a list of 818 Chinese imports that would be subject to an additional 25 percent tariff starting on July 6. These include products used in scientific research, such as microscopes and parts used in X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, and other imaging devices. While the effect that these tariffs will have on researchers is still unclear, some policy experts worry that President Donald Trump’s policies may impede scientific collaboration and talent flow between the two countries.  

Brian Xu, a toxicologist with The Acta Group, a scientific and regulatory consulting firm, says that because China exports relatively few high-quality scientific instruments, the tariffs on those products are unlikely to have a large effect on researchers in the U.S. However, he notes that Chinese companies produce many synthetic chemicals used by pharmaceutical and biotech companies in the U.S. “If there are tariffs [placed] on those, that’s certainly going to increase costs,” Xu says.  

According to the Trade Representative office (USTR), Trump’s administration is implementing the new tariffs to address the results of an agency investigation, which found China guilty of unfair trade practices. “China’s acts, policies and practices related to technology transfer, intellectual property, and innovation are unreasonable and discriminatory, and burden U.S. commerce,” USTR says in a June 15 statement

China immediately retaliated to the US government’s announcement with a list of 545 US exports that it would slap additional taxes on starting next week, along with an additional 114 products—including chemicals and medical equipment—under consideration for additional tariffs.  

Some scientists in the U.S. have expressed concerns to Nature about the potential increase in research equipment costs as a result of the tariffs. But whether the tariffs will have noticeable effects for researchers remains to be seen. 

Contrary to what the Trump administration has said, trade wars are not easy to win.

—William Hauk
University of South Carolina

Scientific organization in the U.S. do not yet see cause for alarm. “At this point, it is unclear what impact this may have on the research ecosystem here in the US, and to date, we have not heard from any ACS [American Chemical Society] members or their respective organizations on this topic,” Glenn Ruskin, the director of ACS External Affairs and Communications, writes in an email to The Scientist. “It is a developing situation and one that we will be watching.”

Likewise, Tom Wang, the chief international officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), says that “it’s hard to say right now what the direct impact [of the tariffs] will be.” Wang adds that while it will be important to keep an eye on the products used the research community, at this point, the full extent of the tariffs that the U.S. will place on foreign products—and the retaliatory tariffs that may come as a result—is still unknown. 

On the other side of the tariffs, in China, worries are also reserved. Yibing Duan, a science and technology policy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, tells The Scientist in an email that the potential for the tariffs to increase the cost of research in China is not a big concern, because products bought from the U.S. for scientific purposes “could be imported from the E.U., Japan, and other developed nations.” 

There is, however, fear that the economic dispute between the U.S. and China may intensify. USTR has also released a second set including 284 products that may be subject to additional tariffs. (The agency declined The Scientist’s request for comment.) “Contrary to what the Trump administration has said, trade wars are not easy to win,” says William Hauk, a professor of economics at the University of South Carolina. “They have a tendency to escalate with tit-or-tat measures, and this could start affecting a broader range of products.” 

Spill-over effects  

Duan tells The Scientist that although he does not currently see the new tariffs as a serious concern for research, a trade war between the U.S. and China could create a distrustful environment that may stifle intercountry relationships in the areas of science and technology. 

Wang adds that other moves by the Trump administration, such as the tougher restrictions on visas for Chinese students studying in the U.S., may also reduce scientific cooperation between the two countries. Together, these kinds of policies could have a “chilling effect on collaboration, access to technology, and access to knowledge and talent,” Wang says. 

Hauk notes that, if the US-China trade war escalates, there could be additional restrictions placed on student visas, as well as H1B visas, which allow US companies to hire foreign workers. 

“The argument made by some in this administration is that somehow the U.S. is not the beneficiary of the talent, the knowledge, or the technology from other places, but that the U.S. is giving this away to other countries,” Wang tells The Scientist. “But I think that’s not reflective of how the US scientific system works, in which we do benefit from working with [foreign] people, technologies, and companies.” 

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