Politics and the pandemic disrupt migration patterns in research
Researchers are watching how political and economic tensions between China and Australia will affect scientific collaborations.
18 March 2021
According to the University of Queensland (UQ), China’s 2018 moratorium on coastal reclamation was prompted in part by its research collaboration into migratory shorebirds involving China, South Korea, Japan and four other countries.
By scrutinizing satellite images, UQ professor of conservation and biodiversity, Richard Fuller, and his colleagues discovered that due to development since 1950, two-thirds of the Yellow Sea intertidal habitat, where millions of birds rest and feed en route to Australia from the Arctic tundra, had disappeared.
The species declining fastest in Australia, including the critically endangered eastern curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), are dependent on the annual Yellow Sea stopover. In 2015, the Australian government, citing UQ research, drew up an international plan for the eastern curlew, ratified by 22 countries.
UQ is now advising China and South Korea on World Heritage listing for parts of the remaining Yellow Sea mudflats.
The migratory shorebird project, which started in 2002, is “one we’re really proud of”, says Bronwyn Harch, deputy vice-chancellor of research and innovation at UQ, one of Australia’s Group of Eight (Go8) leading research institutions.
Such collaboration, especially with China, to solve a global problem that’s also in the national interest, is exactly the kind of research story Australian universities are keen to tell. In the past year they have faced intense scrutiny for their strong research ties to China.
In April 2020, Australia’s then-foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, had called for an independent global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, asserting it was “clear that the virus originated in Wuhan”.
Since then, universities have been caught in a row between Australia and its biggest trading partner, so serious that the prospect of China placing limits on joint scientific research is no longer remote.
A ban would chime with the Chinese Ministry of Education’s June 2020 warning, repeated in February 2021, against travel to or study in Australia, citing safety fears over racist incidents.
A freeze on research links would be among the growing list of official and unofficial Chinese sanctions against Australia, with restrictions in place on imports from Australia worth more than Aus20 billion (US$15.76 billion) a year, including wool, coal, copper ore, beef, wine and timber.
Disentangling pandemic from political disruption is difficult, but any cooling of the scientific relationship is bad news for the Asia-Pacific region’s entire research effort, because China is its engine for growth.
“Thankfully, it is not happening to Singapore,” says Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore (NUS), referring to the Australia–China situation. “We are watching it very closely.”
Since 2015, the Asia-Pacific region’s share of global output tracked by the Nature Index has grown from 26.9% to 34.3%, with China responsible for more than 98% of the increase. Without China, the region’s share of output would have declined slightly, in part due to the 2015–20 slide in Japan’s contribution.
For collaborative research, the Chinese mainland is the partner in six of the ten most productive intra-regional pairs; it is Singapore’s most important collaborator, and for Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, it is second only to the United States. The Australia–China relationship scores highest in the region.
Between institutions, the NUS partnership with Tianjin University on organic chemistry research in materials science was strongest in the year to August 2020, with a collaboration score of 43.44.
UQ’s global research leadership ambitions lend inescapable logic to partnering with Chinese institutions, given China’s “phenomenal” R&D investment in the past decade, says Harch. “They were going to get places faster than us, so [the question] is how do you partner with them to make sure you go along with them?”
“They come to us for our specific know-how and expertise,” she says, referring to “world-leading” UQ research in areas such as genomics, environmental sustainability and the brain. “Matched with their infrastructure, it’s a pretty good collaboration.”
It’s little wonder that collaboration with China is growing along with the quantity and quality of China’s research, says Tan. For NUS, opportunities to translate research into products for the huge Chinese market is a key attraction. He says the machinery of China’s innovation ecosystem is both fast and sophisticated.
But as China has become more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad, tensions have risen over scientific collaboration. The United States, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom are among countries that have sought to bolster national security protections in their international research relationships, although Australia has been at pains, at least officially, not to single out China.
The Go8 boasts that it was instrumental in helping to develop what it describes as the “ground-breaking” University Foreign Interference Taskforce guidelines that the Australian government issued in 2019 to “deepen resilience against foreign interference in the university sector”. But the Go8 now worries that Australia’s “example to the rest of the world on how both security and research outcomes can be balanced and maintained” is in jeopardy.
Its 2020 submission to an Australian parliamentary inquiry into national security risks affecting the university and research sector criticises an “overlapping and confusing maze” of legislation that “has created new uncertainties and risks positioning Australia as an undesirable partner”.
Brian Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Canberra, and deputy chair of the Go8, says legislation enacted in 2020 imposes terms and conditions on research that “our colleagues around the world don’t have, and may well be seen as unacceptable”.
An opaque decision-making process in relation to research grants deemed not to meet national security requirements, and the ability of a minister to “retrospectively pull a grant”, create a “chilling effect”, he says.
“People will quit putting grants in on areas of national interest just based on hearsay. We will have researchers leaving the country because they will find it unpalatable to be here,” says Schmidt.
“The message is not that we should not work with China, but that we should make sure we do our due diligence,” says Harch.
Signs of cooling in the education and research partnership between the two countries are already present, such as reported long delays in obtaining visas, and Chinese students staying away. For example, 25% of UQ’s PhD candidates are from China, which in 2020 represented about 830 students.
A UQ spokesperson says 60 have “international remote status”, but could not say how many chose to remain in China rather than start or resume their studies. Harch says UQ had kept their places, but travel disruption caused by the pandemic made it hard to interpret the numbers of absentees.
A June 2020 survey of 1,012 students in China by a researcher at the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, included 304 who had studied in Australia but could not return due to restrictions; less than half of those surveyed who had studied overseas planned to resume after restrictions lifted.
Jeffrey Reimers, director of the International Centre for Quantum and Molecular Structures at Shanghai University and a chemistry professor at the University of Technology Sydney, says four of the five international staff at the centre, including him, have been unable to return to China for more than a year.
“The outlook for foreign academics working in China is very unclear. I think many are likely to be reconsidering their future there, and some of my friends have already departed China permanently.”
Zhu Yanwu is a materials science professor at the University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, whose contribution to collaborative graphene research between China, the United States and Singapore won an international award in 2017.
He says the most active partners in his field in the Asia-Pacific region are China, Australia, Japan and Singapore, and that most other countries in the region still have insufficient research infrastructure.
Zhu sees great potential for China and southeastern Asian countries to advance their research collaboration, perhaps coordinated by Singapore and unified by a “common appreciation of Chinese culture”.
China allocates 10,000 student scholarships a year to the 140 countries that signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative for trade and economic cooperation, of which 31 are in south and east Asia and the Pacific.
Zhu worries that increasing tension between China and Australia could frustrate further regional research collaboration. “I’ve heard many Australian scientists originally from China have tried to avoid getting involved in China-Australian collaborations, and funding for the two parties is not as active as before,” he says.
James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney and co-author of a 2020 report The Australia-China Science Boom, believes the risk of future action by China that deliberately stymies research links is low.
“Scientific success is at the heart of China’s development strategy, and China understands that international collaboration is fundamental to that. I think it would be very slow to use scientific collaboration as a tool in political disputes,” he says.
Cong Cao, an expert in China’s science policy at the University of Nottingham business school in Ningbo, China, agrees, saying China’s regional collaborations have become more important due to its rift with the United States, with scientific ties caught up in the Trump administration’s efforts to ‘decouple’ the US economy from China’s.
Despite its successes, China remains a follower in “many, many fields”, says Cao.
“At the level of working research, they still want to work with the best scientists they can. Maybe the diplomatic relationship is kind of paused, but at the scientific level I don’t think the Chinese government wants to disconnect with the international scientific community,” Cao concludes.