How U.S.-China Tensions Have Hurt American Science

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Featured Scholars

  • Ruixue Jia
    Ruixue Jia is an associate professor of economics at the School of Global Policy and Strategy. Jia is interested in the interplay of economics, history and politics. One stream of her research focuses on understanding elite formation and elite influence, in both historical and modern contexts. A second focus of her work is the deep historical roots of economic development. More recently, she started following the ongoing transformation of the manufacturing sector in China and expanded her interest to labor and technology issues.
  • Margaret Roberts
    Margaret (Molly) Roberts’s research interests lie in the intersection of political methodology and the politics of information, with a specific focus on methods of automated content analysis and the politics of censorship in China. She received a PhD from Harvard in Government (2014), MS in Statistics from Stanford (2009) and BA in International Relations and Economics (2009). Currently, she is working on a variety of projects that span censorship, propaganda, topic models, and other methods of text analysis. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review, Political Analysis, and Science.

There is a growing concern in Washington that the United States government, its companies, and universities have helped drive the rapid growth of China’s high-tech sector to the detriment of America’s overall national interest. Accusations of intellectual property (IP) theft and state-sponsored industrial espionage by China have loomed large in the bilateral relationship. These concerns were at the heart of the Section 301 investigation launched by the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in 2018, which resulted in the subsequent imposition of tariffs and a trade war between the two countries. Moreover, as competition between Washington and Beijing deepens, the Biden administration has made it clear that it believes the United States must maintain as big of a lead as possible in key technologies, even if this means constraining previously permitted commercial sales and investments.  

Such sweeping policies on research and technology have had a chilling effect on academic collaboration between the United States and China. Reducing Chinese access to U.S. technology and cutting-edge research may be desirable for national security motivations regardless of the broader impact, but policymakers should be aware of the potential ramifications for the United States. Recent work by University of California at San Diego (UCSD) professors Ruixue Jia, Margaret Roberts, University of North Carolina Professor Ye Wang, and UCSD Ph.D. student Eddie Yang suggests that initiatives aimed at addressing perceived Chinese malfeasance vis-à-vis U.S. research institutions have likely negatively impacted the quality of U.S. scientific publications and, hence, slowed American advancements in some scientific fields. 

The factors that make innovation possible are still debated and contested. Nevertheless, the United States benefits from an open system for research which is intrinsically more likely to be taken advantage of by other countries. This may be a vulnerability but curtailing that openness can affect the country’s research and innovation capacity. The free flow of ideas and talent across borders has been particularly powerful in enhancing U.S. research, but policymakers and researchers will have to evaluate how the norms governing them will adjust as the rivalry with China grows. 


The Arc of U.S.-China Scientific Collaboration: From Friendship to Suspicion

Scientific cooperation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) dates to 1979, after the normalization of diplomatic relations. Engagement has been particularly fruitful in the field of public health: the ensuing two decades saw deep collaboration in research, including path-breaking studies on birth defects and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) role in the establishment of Chinese public health infrastructure. After the 2003 SARS outbreak, collaboration to strengthen China’s public health infrastructure was enhanced further. U.S. institutions also benefited from accessing Chinese labs, for example by running clinical trials in both countries, researchers recruited more targeted trial participants in a short period of time due to China’s large patient pool, accelerating the testing process by several years.

Beyond the government-to-government and public institution efforts, deepening U.S.-China ties over the past four decades brought an increase in transnational scholarly collaborations between universities and laboratories. People-to-people exchanges played a significant part in this as well. Among other things, an increasing number of graduate students from China joined labs in the United States, creating epistemic communities across the two countries. As a result, scientific collaboration with Chinese scholars and institutions became widespread and important for U.S.-based researchers by the 2010s. 

At that same time, however, growing dissatisfaction in Washington over the U.S.-China relationship came to a head, accelerating during the Trump administration. High-profile actions, such as trade tariffs applied to Chinese goods stared in 2018, coincided with the launching of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) China Initiative, which aimed to uncover and punish economic espionage. While the theft of trade secrets, particularly on behalf of China, was already a concern and various cases had been brought to court, the number of prosecutions grew rapidly during the Trump administration.  

The China Initiative was perceived by many, especially in the Asian-American community, to unjustly target PRC and Chinese- American scholars. This perception was enhanced by the fact that several high-profile cases were dismissed in court. Moreover, many of the cases prosecuted under the China Initiative focused on lower-level crimes related to “research integrity,” such as wire fraud, tax-related violations, and failure to disclose funding from China. In several cases, scientists were connected to China’s Thousand Talents Program. In early 2022, the DOJ announced it was terminating the initiative largely due to concerns that it fueled the perception that the government was targeting people of ethnic Chinese background. However, at the time of this writing, there were multiple cases connected to China still pending. 

Just as consequential for scholars with ties to China was the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) investigation on foreign influence, which also picked up steam in 2018. Between 2018 and 2020 the NIH contacted 87 institutions regarding 189 scientists accused of violating the terms of their grants. Reportedly, at least 54 of these researchers lost their jobs. The probe, which was carried out with some level of collaboration with the DOJ’s China Initiative, found evidence of misreporting and omissions in grant reports by scholars. It is likely that poor enforcement and lack of institutional oversight may have contributed to the situation, especially since scholars in some fields had been under pressure in previous years to expand international collaboration. 

shoenberg3/Adobe Stock

Scientific Collaboration with China is Declining

The NIH investigation and the China Initiative both began affecting academic institutions and researchers directly in the course of 2018. Yet, despite much media attention on specific cases, scholars have only recently begun to look more carefully at the overall impact on collaborations and research outcomes. Data collected and analyzed by Professors Ruixue Jia, Margaret Roberts, Ye Wang and Eddie Yang shows that there has been a measurable impact on U.S. research output that predates the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since 2013, China has been by far the most frequent international partner for American scholars’ collaborations in the field of life sciences. However, since 2019 there has been a decline that is not observed in collaborations with other countries (see Figure 1).  

Figure 1 illustrates overall trends in collaborations. The data collected and analyzed by Jia, Roberts, Wang, and Yang suggests that geopolitical tensions are indeed driving this trend and 2018 was a watershed moment, marked by the NIH investigation and the China Initiative.  

pressmaster/Adobe Stock

Scholars Collaborating with China Underperformed after 2018

To better understand the drivers of changing trends in scientific collaborations, the research team first compared scientists who collaborated with colleagues in China with scientists with collaborators in other countries over 2010-2014. They found 32,056 principal investigators that had collaborated with China over that period and 70,746 principal investigators that had collaborations with other countries. A principal investigator (PI) refers to the leading researcher in a lab or project, typically the person who would receive primary funding.

The study relied on PubMed, a platform maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health and Dimensions, a large scientific research database, to collect the data. Building on that initial dataset, the team then looked at publication trends over 2015–2020 to see how research and publications differed between the two periods.   

Figures 2a and 2b show the ratio of the number of publications and citations of PIs with a history of collaborations with China relative to their colleagues who collaborated with scholars from other countries. Prior to 2018, PIs with collaborations with China were significantly more productive relative to PIs with other foreign collaborators, but that advantage shrunk suddenly after 2018.

The scholars then analyzed the data trying to take into account (“control for” in social science terminology) a variety of other factors. Analyzing publications on PubMed, the scholars found that scientists with a history of collaboration with China saw a relatively small decline in the quantity of publications, between 1.8 and 1.9 percent. But when looking at the decline in quality, measured by the number of times a paper was cited, they found a much larger negative effect, between 6.6 and 7.1 percent. For non-PubMed publications, there was actually a small increase in quantity but still a large decrease in citations, between 5.4 and 5.9 percent. Finally, when taking all publications together they found a minimal difference in the number of publications but a significant fall in quality, between 7.1 and 7.2 percent.

The analysis was run using a variety of statistical tools that found relatively consistent results. On an annual basis (as shown in Figure 3) the negative effect on PubMed Citations for PIs with collaborations with China was 9 percent in 2019 and 18 percent in 2020 relative to 2018.

To evaluate the quality of publications, Jia, Roberts, Wang, and Yang chose the number of times a paper was cited by other scholars. Although this is an imperfect measure and doesn’t convey everything about a paper’s impact and the quality of the underlying research, the number of citations does reflect a paper’s possible influence on the broader field. That said, more research and data will be needed to evaluate the full impact of the investigations on the quality of scholarship. 


U.S.-China Tensions Affect the Quality of Publications 

The data discussed so far shows that scholars with an established history of collaboration with China prior to 2014 saw a decline in productivity between 2018 and 2020. While this suggests that the NIH probe and the China Initiative may have played a role in the trends, it is not entirely conclusive. However, the research team looked at quantitative and qualitative data to definitively determine whether the measured decline was indeed caused by U.S.-China tensions and specific initiatives. They found at least three pieces of evidence that link the decline in collaborations and productivity to rising geopolitical tensions. 

(1) Scientists of Asian Background in the United States Were More Negatively Impacted.

This finding is consistent with what one might expect from the news coverage of the investigations and the profiles of those investigated, many of whom are ethnically Chinese. Much of the criticism surrounding the China Initiative stemmed from fears that the investigation was focused on the ethnic origin of researchers. This is particularly concerning because of rising anti-Chinese and anti-Asian discrimination and targeted violence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jia, Roberts, Wang, and Yang found that the difference in productivity between Asian and non-Asian scientists is small overall. However, when looking only at papers funded by the NIH the data show that after 2018, Asian PIs with previous collaborations with Chinese colleagues had fewer citations than other scholars with past collaborations with Chinese partners. Both groups saw a decline relative to Asian scientists who did not have a history of joint publications with Chinese colleagues. Asian scientists with a previous history of collaboration with China were also more adversely affected than their peers in terms of citations when their papers were funded by Chinese institutions. 

The findings suggest that the trends identified in the post-2018 period were more significant for Asian researchers, consistent with the anecdotal and qualitative evidence collected in the wake of the China Initiative and the NIH probe.  

(2) The Adverse Effects in Publications Were Spread Out Across Multiple U.S. Institutions. 

The scholars highlighted in this feature considered whether they might be capturing a phenomenon limited to a handful of universities. However, when they looked at institutions with over 100 scholars with previous collaborations with China and with other countries, they found that the negative effects were widespread (see Figure 4). Moreover, when looking at institutions that had high-profile cases reported in the media they seemed to be relatively evenly distributed throughout the entire sample.

(3) Fields Where NIH Funding Is More Important and Those With More U.S.-China Collaborations Experienced a Larger Decline in Citations

Jia, Roberts, Wang, and Yang found that, as expected, scholars with previous collaborations with China studying in fields with a higher share of US-China collaborations or fields that are more reliant on funding from the NIH show a larger decline in citations per paper due to the investigations. Fields more reliant on NIH funding include biochemistry and cell biology, medical microbiology, and immunology. The top fields in terms of U.S.-China collaborations are materials engineering, physical chemistry, and molecular and materials chemistry. Most of these can be seen in the bottom right corner of Figure 5.  

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty images

Interviews Support the Quantitative Findings

To contextualize the quantitative data, the research team interviewed 12 U.S.-based scientists about their collaborative research experiences. The findings were largely consistent with surveys on the topic, including a survey of Chinese scientists in the United States published by the Committee of 100 and the University of Arizona. A report by the American Physical Society similarly indicated that many of its student and early-career members found the United States to be unwelcoming, while one in five of their members had withdrawn from opportunities for international collaboration because of U.S.-mandated security guidelines.  

Most of the scientists interviewed by Jia, Roberts, Wang, and Yang felt negatively affected by the investigations and by the worsening bilateral relationship, and, as a result, were unwilling to engage with institutions in China. For some scientists the effect on their productivity was very direct: two scientists had NIH funding suspended for years because of the investigation. In one case, a scientist had to close their lab. 

Two quotes from separate scientists are representative of these experiences: 

"I’ve had a huge loss in productivity – many things that we could do much faster have all slowed down because of the lack of people or lack of funding.  I even had the FBI knock on my door. They are investigating over 500 people about their China ties. I know so many people who have lost their job because of this. And then they get an offer to go back to China. This is a major harvest for China – so many people are going back."

(All quotes are paraphrased and not necessarily word-for-word)

"I have nothing to hide, I just didn’t fill out the forms [correctly]. The weird thing [is], if I had disclosed, there wouldn’t be an issue at all. My research isn’t involved in national security, just trying to find a cure for a disease. If I have something to hide, why would I put these grants on the paper and tell my chair? I guess we are just caught in the middle in the geopolitical issues between the United States and China."

Even those not under investigation felt pressured to choose between U.S. government funding and collaborations with institutions in China. This affected productivity because it meant losing access to human capital, labs, and equipment that were crucial to the research of these scientists. Several interviewees reported they were changing the direction of their research as a result. As the following comments from different scientists show, there was also an element of confusion over why their fields raise national security concerns: 

"I got NIH funding last year. My current funding is better than before. But the investigations have a strong impact on recruiting students: there are fewer students applying, and they can’t come."

"Then there was a lot of administrative push back asking about why we were going to China. And they basically just wouldn’t process my requests (…) It’s clear that the administrators are very afraid of me going to China (…) Because of this, I started going less to China. Part of my complaint is there isn’t much distinction between my research – which is not on a national security topic – and stuff that’s actually fundamental to national security. Then the money issue got complicated too – before no one worried about this, but now they want me to document everything that people in China spend on me – meals, travel, etc (…) I now just refuse all money from China because it’s going to make my life more complicated."

"At the height of my collaboration with China (…) we were supported by the U.S. government, and through our collaborations with China, investments from private sector and Chinese funding agencies (…) At the time, setting up that collaboration was really easy (…)This would be really hard to set up now – I wouldn’t do it. Both sides are so suspicious, it’s too dangerous."

"To be very frank, there are some invitations from China to collaborate from universities and invitations to give talks, but I’ve declined all of them."

The interviews also revealed that scientists with Chinese heritage felt under intense scrutiny because of their background, and, as a result, experienced the chilling effect on research more acutely. Overall, those interviewed confirmed the findings of Jia and her co-authors’ research, indicating that they believed that the investigations were having a broader effect on their fields: 

"The biggest impact for me is the mental effect – I used to work very very hard. Basically, everything [was] science and science research. Now, I really don’t care anymore. In some sense, I still do, but how much have I worked in this country – it’s work for me of course, but I just feel like I won’t be as productive in the past even if you gave me lots of money, I really don’t care that much anymore. This policy has really hurt U.S. research – I know lots of really good people have left the United States (…) Right now, I just feel betrayed."

"Even though we are U.S. citizens, we are scientists in the United States, we are treated as foreigners forever. Somehow there is this general sense that we will try to benefit China rather than the United States, this impression gives us a lot of burden. We have to spend time to explain and to demonstrate that we are loyal to the United States."

The respondents also shared a sense that the institutions they worked for were either not standing up for them or not providing them with the guidance and tools needed to assess the risk of collaboration with China. This suggests that the lack of a broader infrastructure to help with risk assessment and guide or oversee researchers as they embarked in international collaborations likely contributed to some of the current issues. While some of these issues have been addressed by the Biden administration, institutions, researchers, and government will likely need to coordinate far better in the future.

ryanking999/Adobe Stock

The NIH Investigation Slowed Scientific Progress in Some Fields

The data collected and analyzed by Jia, Roberts, Wang, and Yang indicates that individual scientists that had collaborated with China previously saw a negative impact on the quality of their work, especially if they were of Asian descent and relied on NIH funding. But what does this mean for research more broadly? The same study compares progress in various scientific fields in China and the United States, relative to the other top 48 countries in natural sciences research.

The data show that fields more affected by U.S.-China tensions (as found by the research team in the previous steps of the data analysis) also produced fewer new publications in 2019 and 2020 relative to the rest of the world. In Figure 6, these are the bubbles located in the bottom left area. This is true both for the United States and China suggesting that both countries have suffered as a result of declining collaborations. 

More research is needed to understand whether the decline will hold over the medium-term and the longer-term impact of this decline in collaborations, as well as the influence of other factors, including changing political dynamics within China. However, the data presented here does suggest that there may indeed be a tradeoff between curtailing scientific collaboration with China and the quality of research in the United States.

NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese Policies Have Also Undermined Exchanges and Collaborations

This feature is focused on how domestic American policies focused on scientific collaborations with China have affected the quality and quantity of U.S. research. It is worth noting, however, that the Chinese government has carried out policies and unofficial actions that have also undermined academic and scientific exchanges. China’s zero-Covid policy has been one of the most visible policies undermining U.S.-China scholarly exchanges and collaborations in recent years, but there are several other types of restrictions that have also contributed to the current situation. 

The Thousand Talents Program announced by the Chinese government in 2008 has also undermined trust with the United States and has jeopardized exchanges and collaboration. The program was launched to attract more global talent to China to help develop its scientific industry. However, the lack of transparency and some widespread practices associated with the program, such as researchers holding grants or salaries from both Chinese and American institutions and having senior foreign researchers bring their research to China, have contributed to growing concerns that China leveraged the initiative to steal sensitive technology. United States authorities thus made it a focus for law enforcement, which led to increased scrutiny of scientists who applied to and participated in the program.  

More recently, in late 2019, China reformed the nomination process for the State Natural Science Award, one of the five national science awards established by the State Council. The new guidelines strongly encourage scholars to list papers published in domestic Chinese journals when applying for the award. A few months later, the government announced changes to its research-evaluation policy and banned cash rewards to scholars who publish in SCI journals, which are mostly foreign English-language journals. Additionally, there are reports indicating that China’s education ministry has required academics to seek university approval for international collaborations and overseas trips. These rules have been applied to online international events as well since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

In 2021, the education ministry also announced the termination of 286 cooperative education programs between Chinese and foreign universities. As China’s concerns about data security and secrecy grow, the government has gradually closed off Western scholars’ access to many research databases and archives. According to Jia Qingguo, former dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, some universities only allow scholars to interact with foreigners if at least one Chinese colleague is present, and require a detailed record of the conversation afterwards. These kinds of policies and restrictions reduce Chinese scholars’ willingness and ability to collaborate with international colleagues and participate in foreign events. China’s latest five-year plan will likely reinforce this trend, as it emphasizes scientific and technological self-reliance. 

Although not the focus of this feature, it is worth noting that scholars in the social sciences and humanities are facing even more restrictions from the Chinese government when participating in international collaboration on certain China-related topics. Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Rory Truex conducted a survey on China studies scholars in 2018 and discovered that “repressive research experiences are a rare but real phenomenon.” Those experiences include being “invited to tea” by authorities, having a colleague be warned about the sensitivity of their work, being denied access to archives, and having difficulties in obtaining a visa. What counts as sensitive research for Chinese authorities is usually ambiguous, incentivizing many scholars to self-censor. This has resulted in incidents such as collaborators dropping out from a joint paper to avoid being identified with sensitive research that could offend Beijing. In other cases, scholars reported that they have changed the focus of their research away from China.  

In short, it is likely that Chinese government policies and political restrictions are reducing the willingness of Chinese scholars to collaborate with foreign scholars. The ability of foreign scholars to go to China for research has also declined significantly. In the long run, this could isolate China from the international academic community and weaken other countries’ understanding of China. 

RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images

Policy Implications

There are important national security benefits to reducing Chinese access to certain key technologies, but the United States needs to carefully weigh the risks of broad-brush strategies that overly restrict collaboration or create a generally unwelcoming environment for all scientists of Chinese ethnicity. Maintaining an open system that is welcoming to immigrants and that allows for international collaboration is crucial to maintaining American leadership in innovation. At the same time, the evolving geopolitical situation will require far more scrutiny of activities involving China, including cross-national collaborations. Policymakers should be clear of the risks to domestic innovation posed by the decline in the relationship and balance the costs and benefits wisely.  

Part of the challenge is that the front-line actors in these kinds of collaborations, including scientists, academics, and university administrators, have limited experience in national security or IP theft risk assessment. This will have to change and should mean better coordination between universities, researchers, and federal agencies, especially those overseeing research grants. China’s increasingly important position in scientific research will make it hard for U.S.-based scholars to stay at the cutting edge of their fields without engaging with colleagues in China. However, universities and scholars will need to re-think how they can continue to benefit from collaborations while shielding themselves from espionage and protecting their employees from risky engagements.  

Universities and other research institutions should be at the forefront of training, guiding and monitoring exchanges with China to reduce the risk of security violations, such as transferring sensitive information or technology to institutions affiliated with the Chinese military establishment. This will require institutions to think more holistically about research and set up clear guidelines and mechanisms to review collaborations with China. The recent report providing recommendations for how to engage with China published by M.I.T. may be a valuable template for other institutions.  

Importantly, institutions should not entirely shy away and curtail all collaborative research with China. Rather, they should establish robust review systems to ensure some level of interaction with China while also reducing risk. For example, some universities may find it prudent to discourage their scientists from participating in the Thousand Talent Program and such a policy should be clearly stated and explained to all staff members. NIH representatives have stated that participation in the Thousand Talent Program must be disclosed publicly but that it does not preclude scientists from receiving federal funding. The government and the NIH could revise this and officially exclude scientists with ties to the program from receiving grants. Such a policy, however, should account for the many who participated in the program before the new rules and did not explicitly break any rules at the time. 

Institutions will also have to do a better job at ensuring their researchers comply with government requirements and disclose their ties with China. The NIH has uncovered numerous cases of grants violations, to a significant degree because of funding from China. Such practices could be curtailed through widespread training of researchers from universities as well as grant-issuing institutions. The U.S. government has taken some steps to provide clearer and more consistent guidance: the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been overseeing the implementation of NSPM-33. The latter is a policy issued under the last administration which aims to standardize and strengthen disclosure requirements across all federal research agencies. 

More policies restricting collaboration are likely to come, such as the Preventing PLA Acquisition of United States Technology Act of 2022 which has been introduced in the House and the Senate. Moreover, if export controls and restrictions on technology sharing in fields such as biotech are introduced by the executive branch, they could have significant repercussions for universities and researchers. While such measures may be justified by broader security concerns, there is still a need to promote reassurance. Clarifying which sectors are at higher risk of scrutiny for national security compared to others may be helpful. For example, there may be some fields of medicine, like research on cures for cancer or Alzheimer’s that might be identified as high priority for progress and lower risk. Areas of research that generally tend to produce less profitable or sensitive intellectual property may also be better suited for collaborations, some proposals include technology to measure air pollution or emissions.  

Most importantly though, the qualitative evidence suggests that the chilling effect on research comes from the perceived targeting of ethnically Asian scientists or those that have engagements with China. A policy of reassurance towards the communities that have been affected most directly by the investigations, people of Chinese and Asian background, should continue to be openly pursued. At a time when the relationship with China is not expected to improve significantly, it is important that the United States government avoid fueling any kind of xenophobic or racist tendencies. This would undermine the values of American democracy, but there are also some more pragmatic implications. The ability of U.S. institutions to attract top talent from across the world has been an asset for innovation for over a century. Sending a message that foreigners are not welcome could damage the United States’ image among potential researchers for years to come, advantaging other countries with leading research institutions with more welcoming policies. The image of a welcoming country may be especially important at a time when immigration policies are not particularly easy to navigate even for highly skilled workers. 

Finally, the Biden administration has been very vocal about working with allies and partners. This may be a good opportunity to boost international collaborations with other countries and foster an open dialogue about how to best address risks tied to international scientific collaboration while safeguarding relatively open research systems and academic freedom.


Research by Ruixue Jia, Margaret Roberts, Ye Wang, and Eddie Yang cited and discussed in this feature is published and available here:


Using data from PubMed and Dimensions, a database, Professors Jia, Roberts, Wang, and Yang compared the productivity of U.S.-based principal investigators (PI) who collaborated with colleagues in China during 2010–2014 with those who collaborated with scientists in other countries outside the United States. The research team then studied the publication records for over 102,000 scientists that fit into the two groups between 2015–2020 to measure changes after the NIH investigation in 2018. The study used the number of citations and publications to measure scientists’ productivity and found that the investigations coincide with a decline in the productivity of scientists who collaborated with scientists in China. 

The scholars split the sample into Asian and non-Asian scientists who had previously collaborated with China-based researchers and found that both groups were adversely affected by the NIH investigation. However, when they categorized publications based on whether they were funded by the NIH, they found that Asian scientists were more adversely affected. It is worth noting that Asian scientists were identified using an algorithm that sorts through surnames and it is not able to distinguish Chinese from non-Chinese Asian last names (for example, “Singh”), so it is a very broad sample.

The research team also analyzed the effects of the investigation on institutions with more than 100 scientists with collaborations with China and other countries. They found that for most universities the effect was negative. The institutions with known NIH investigations did not appear to be outliers. 

To study the potential differences between fields of research, the scholars identified the top fields in terms of NIH funding and those in terms of US-China collaboration using publication data from 2010 to 2020. They discovered that scientists who had collaborations with institutions in China experienced a larger decline in productivity (measured in terms of citations) in fields with a higher share of NIH funding and US-China collaborations.  

Lastly, Jia, Roberts, Wang, and Yang investigated what the overall effect of the NIH investigations was on scientific progress in the United States and China. To do so, they compared the productivity of the natural science fields of the two countries with other countries in the world. They discovered that in both countries, fields that were more affected by U.S.-China political tensions have published less during 2019 and 2020 relative to the rest of the world, suggesting that both countries endured losses. 

About the Authors

  • Ilaria Mazzocco
    Ilaria Mazzocco is a senior fellow with the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, she was a senior research associate at the Paulson Institute, where she led research on Chinese climate and energy policy for Macropolo, the institute’s think tank. She holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where her dissertation investigated Chinese industrial policy by focusing on electric vehicle promotion efforts and the role of local governments. She also holds master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins SAIS and Central European University, as well as a bachelor’s degree from Bard College.
  • Qin (Maya) Mei
    Qin (Maya) Mei is a research associate for the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior to joining the CSIS Trustee Chair, she conducted research on Chinese foreign policy and political economy for the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, the CSIS China Power Project, and the Eurasia Group. Ms. Mei earned her MA in Asian studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service (SFS) at Georgetown University. She also holds a BA cum laude in diplomacy and world affairs with a minor in sociology from Occidental College.
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This feature was made possible through the generous support of the Stanford Center on China’s Economy and Institutions (SCCEI). Special thanks goes to Professors Ruixue Jia, Margaret (Molly) Roberts, Ye Wang, and Eddie Yang for sharing their work and time with us, and to the SCCEI team: Scott Rozelle, Matthew Boswell, and Jennifer Choo for the dedication to this collaboration. The authors are also grateful for Scott Kennedy’s guidance and edits, as well as the hard work and professionalism of our CSIS colleagues, including the Trustee Chair’s Matt Barocas, Elyse Huang, Irene Ezran and Judy Jiang, iDeas Lab’s Jaehyun Han, Lindsay Urchyk, and Will Taylor. All opinions and errors are the solely the authors'.

Cite this Page

Ilaria Mazzocco and Qin (Maya) Mei, "How U.S.-China Tensions Have Hurt American Science," Big Data China, Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 9, 2022, last modified February 7, 2023,