US-China research collaboration has dropped rapidly since 2019 amid growing competition on emerging technologies
A drop-off in papers co-authored by researchers in the US and China has been taken as a sign that the world is pulling back from international research collaboration.
In its latest biennial report on global trends in R&D, published on 16 March, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that such collaboration could be being weakened by increasing competition on emerging technologies.
“Just as it becomes crystal clear that we need to collectively engage to address climate change, geopolitical shifts start to erode collective global action,” Andrew Wyckoff, director of the OECD’s directorate for science, technology and innovation, said at the launch.
The latest data show that while China, the EU and the US together account for more than two-thirds of global spending on R&D, the US and China are accelerating away from the EU.
Wyckoff said China is “quickly becoming a hub of sophisticated high-tech production” and that economic competitiveness in technology is becoming increasingly important for all three major world powers, as well as individual countries like Japan, Korea and the UK.
High water mark
The OECD report illustrates how this trend is playing out in US-China co-authorship of scientific publications. These reached a high in 2019 but have dropped off markedly since then, following steady growth since the 1990s.
UK co-authorship with China also dropped in 2021, although EU-China co-authorship has continued to rise.
The OECD said the decline in US-China collaboration could be due to pandemic travel restrictions and harsher visa rules that have stopped Chinese researchers visiting the US. Research security measures in the US have made collaborations more onerous, against a backdrop of anti-China political rhetoric.
Most of the decline in US-China co-authorship was in engineering and natural sciences—areas that make up the bulk of collaborations between the countries and underlie most emerging technologies.
‘Major test for multilateralism’
Shocks to supply chains from the pandemic and concerns over national security linked to technologies like artificial intelligence have led countries to focus more on technological autonomy.
“This renewed emphasis on resilience and strategic autonomy implies at least a partial unwinding of relationships that have built up over the last 30 years,” Wyckoff said.
“There’s going to be a major test for multilateralism, both in places like the EU and at the OECD, to reconcile growing strategic competition with the need to address global challenges like climate change.”