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US President Joe Biden (R) and China's President Xi Jinping (L) at the Bali G20 Summit in 2022.

China’s President Xi Jinping (left) and US President Joe Biden at the Bali G20 Summit in 2022.Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty

The US government has extended for six months a key symbolic agreement to cooperate with China in science and technology. The agreement was due to expire on 27 August, and its short-term extension has revived researchers’ hopes that the 44-year-old pact will continue.

The agreement does not provide research funding. Rather, it serves as an umbrella agreement to encourage collaboration and goodwill between US and Chinese government agencies, universities and institutions doing research in agriculture, energy, health, the environment and other fields. The extension means that, for now, research will continue as normal.

The non-binding agreement was first signed in 1979 and, since then, has been renewed every five years. The new extension stops short of a full renewal, which some scientists worry is now in jeopardy. Without the agreement, research cooperation and programmes between the two governments could flounder, some experts warn.

The extension “is not as good as a renewal”, says Denis Simon, a researcher in global business and technology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But it’s a good start. It says the US wants to stay connected.”

Growing tensions

Apart from its practical role in promoting scientific collaboration, the agreement has great symbolic value, say researchers in both China and the United States.

“Abandoning such a long-standing agreement would exacerbate the ongoing decoupling in science and education” between the two nations, says Li Tang, public policy researcher at Fudan University in China.

When the agreement was last renewed, in 2018, it was amended to strengthen rights over intellectual property generated by research collaborations between the two countries. But since then, tensions between the two nations have grown, potentially contributing to the Biden administration’s decision to adopt only a short-term extension, researchers say.

Premier Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter sign the agreement on cooperation in Science and Technology in 1979.

Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping and US president Jimmy Carter sign the first agreement on science cooperation in 1979.Credit: Dirck Halstead/Liaison via Getty

Among the programmes that have degraded relationships is a US initiative that aimed to safeguard US laboratories and businesses from espionage. It targeted researchers of Chinese descent before it was shuttered last year. And in July 2022, the US Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which includes measures designed to tighten research security, such as requiring US institutions to report gifts of US$50,000 or more from a foreign government; the previous reporting limit was $250,000.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government recently restricted the flow of academic and health data from China, citing cybersecurity and data privacy concerns.

In a statement to Nature, a US State Department spokesperson said that the United States intends to negotiate amendments to the deal and that challenges posed by China’s science and technology strategies, protection of intellectual property and threat to US security are central considerations.

“This short-term six-month extension will keep the agreement in force while we seek authority to undertake negotiations to amend and strengthen the terms of the [agreement]. It does not commit the US to a longer-term extension.”

Opposition in Congress

Some US lawmakers say the agreement poses a threat to national security and have called for scrapping it. In a 27 June letter to Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, some members of a US House of Representatives committee on China alleged that research partnerships between US and Chinese government organized under the agreement could have developed technologies that would later be used against the United States.

But some scientists campaigned for the US government to continue the agreement. In a letter sent to President Biden on 24 August, physicists Steven Kivelson and Peter Michelson at Stanford University in California wrote that the agreement provides an important framework for cooperation between the two countries and that cutting off ties with China “would directly and negatively impact” their own research. More than 1,000 other academics signed the letter.

Kivelson, a theoretical physicist researching quantum materials, told Nature that many of his best graduate students and postdocs come from China. “Much of the physics that I think about is based on experimental work that is done in China. … The entire field is highly dependent on and benefits from cooperation with colleagues in China,” he says.

Collaboration under threat?

Deborah Seligsohn, an expert in US-China relations at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and a former US State Department official who served at the US embassy in Beijing, says scientific cooperation between the two governments could become “deeply problematic” without the agreement. It provided the “critical structural basis” for projects such as one on birth abnormalities that was the basis for the discovery that folic acid could prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects, she says.

Jenny Lee, a higher education researcher and vice-president for international affairs at the University of Arizona, Tucson, says if the agreement is scrapped, it could hurt research and higher education in the United States more than in China. This year China overtook the United States as the nation publishing the largest number of high-quality research articles. The impact will likely be felt in future as new collaborations fail to form, she says. “It will signal to the next generation of scientists that we don’t want to actively cooperate with China,” she says.

It’s not clear what amendments the US government will seek, but Simon says he is “cautiously optimistic” that the two nations can agree on a way forward that will lay the groundwork for future collaboration.

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