Opinion: Scientists in the US and China Collaborating on COVID-19
Opinion: Scientists in the US and China Collaborating on COVID-19

Opinion: Scientists in the US and China Collaborating on COVID-19

Despite high-profile political tensions between the two countries, researchers in the US and China are working together now more than ever, according to our bibliometric study.

Jenny J. Lee and John P. Haupt
Jun 22, 2020

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The US and China, the largest scientific research producers, are now international adversaries in the midst of a global health crisis. Since the new coronavirus was discovered, geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing in relation to COVID-19 have been appearing on major news outlets daily, and the US-China trade war has escalated to a looming “new cold war.” Despite such turmoil, scientists around the world, including researchers in the US and China, are collaborating at a higher rate than ever before to address COVID-19, according to our analysis of SCOPUS bibliometric data.

Even before the current pandemic, geopolitical tensions were brewing as global rivalry between the two superpowers was steadily intensifying, and the decoupling trend between the two countries has been ongoing for some time. But experts have speculated that COVID-19 accelerated preexisting skepticism by the US, especially about the country’s economic overreliance on China. And when it comes to SARS-CoV-2 itself, there is a high level of suspicion and distrust between the governments. While US leaders have referred to the new coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus,” Chinese leaders have accused the US Army of bringing the virus to Wuhan. As an example of the international strain, the US director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center told NPR, “we have full expectation that China will do everything in their power to obtain any viable research that we are conducting here in the U.S.” US policymakers have also warned that cooperation with China is “a self-harming exercise in a zero-sum competition for global leadership.” US President Donald Trump ordered US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) for siding with China in its tackling of COVID-19, while China accused Trump of transferring blame for US’s mismanagement of the pandemic. 

In the face of such tense political rhetoric, China has enacted policy changes that may discourage international collaboration. The Chinese Academy of Sciences indicated that any COVID-19–related research publications must be evaluated by the government for “academic value” and “timing” prior to public release. Although its enforcement is unclear, this possible added review raised immediate international worries about future collaboration with China. More notably, China announced a major research-evaluation reform initiative in the midst of the global pandemic. Rather than basing researcher performance on mostly publication counts on Science Citation Index (SCI) journals, China is moving towards measuring quality mostly on domestic priorities, which also includes publishing in domestic journals. This move is predicted to lead to a significant decline in papers produced by Chinese researchers in international journals.

In times of global crisis, it is imperative that scientists are able to collaborate and share data. Our research suggests that’s happening in spades. 

With the tense political rhetoric, policy proposals to limit cooperation, and widespread media speculation, one would expect a decline in scientific collaboration between the two countries. However, our research shows the opposite occurring. Utilizing SCOPUS bibliometric data, we found that the world’s share of internationally authored science and engineering (S&E) research publications on COVID-19 from January 1, 2020, to the end of May was significantly higher than pre-pandemic S&E publication trends. Specifically, papers with authors from multiple countries made up 32 percent of the S&E literature on COVID-19 published in the first five months of this year, compared with 26 percent of the general S&E literature published over the previous five years. We also found that almost all of the countries producing the most COVID-19 research are, on average, collaborating with more countries per article on COVID-19 publications compared to science and engineering research before the pandemic. In other words, scientists are working across borders towards addressing the new coronavirus more internationally. 

Regarding US and China specifically, our research findings indicate that the two nations are conducting the most COVID-19 research and continue to collaborate more with each other than with any other country. In fact, their rate of collaboration increased by 5 percent over their rate of collaboration on pre-pandemic science and engineering research. Furthermore, we found that the US and China have the highest rate of collaboration between any two countries with researchers from both countries having collaborated on 122 COVID-19 articles, which is 1.7 times higher than the two countries with the second highest collaboration rate, the US and Canada. 

This growth in collaboration despite US-China strains actually predates the pandemic, according to our analysis of collaboration patterns between the two countries from 2014 to 2018. Our findings also debunked the so-called “China Threat.” In contrast to Chinese researchers posing a threat to the US science and technology enterprise, collaboration with China was necessary for the US to sustain growth in research output over the five-year period. We found that when excluding publications with authors affiliated with a Chinese institution, US publications decreased by 2 percent between 2014 and 2018. Put another way, scientific collaboration across national borders is a positive-sum endeavor, despite political attempts to frame cooperation with China as being zero-sum.

In times of global crisis, it is imperative that scientists are able to collaborate and share data. Our research suggests that’s happening in spades. Although scientists’ international networks, and global science as a whole, are shaped by the resources, restrictions, and incentives that different countries provide, scientific collaboration is not determined by national interests or policies alone. International collaboration also occurs by the extent to which scientists respond. Right now, US and Chinese scientists are exercising individual agency in where and with whom they publish. Science, it seems, can transcend political agendas.

Jenny J. Lee is a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. Email her at jennylee@arizona.eduJohn P. Haupt is a PhD student at the same center. Email him at hauptj@arizona.edu.