China-Russia axis ‘a risk to global science’

Closer ties between Moscow and Beijing may force Western universities to cut their research ties with China, causing a “profound shock” to global research networks unless risks are managed, former universities and science minister Lord Johnson of Marylebone has warned.

In a report for the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Harvard Kennedy School published on 6 July, Lord Johnson says the prospect of a “DragonBear” scenario, in which China and Russia form a scientific collaborative axis and seek to expand it rapidly, may force universities to pull back from their close working relationship with Chinese institutions.

Unlike the blacklisting of Russian research institutions after the invasion of Ukraine in February – which had “little effect on global science” given that “Russia’s science base is weak, deteriorating and marginalised” – taking a similar approach to China “would be a major shock to global knowledge production”, say Lord Johnson and his co-authors.

“Since the turn of the millennium, China has gone from near obscurity to becoming a genuine superpower of global science and an indispensable partner for countries around the world,” the report says.

“For the west, the costs of isolating China would be orders of magnitude greater than those it has incurred by banishing Russia,” adds the report, which charts Beijing’s growing research ties with the US, the UK and Europe, but also with Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

However, Beijing has “more to lose from cutting western collaborative networks and far bigger gains by maximising global scientific collaboration than from entering a bipartite research engagement with Russia, China’s 19th most significant partner”, the report argues.

Urging universities to map their research ties to China – “the world’s biggest spender on R&D and the first or second most frequent research partner for all the G7 countries” – and to develop clear policies for vetting academic partnerships, Lord Johnson said institutions should be ready to respond to the fallout from major geopolitical events.

“When the geopolitics shift, global science rapidly goes from win-win to battle space,” said Lord Johnson, who added that the UK response to the Ukraine conflict has a “clear read-across for what could happen in other theatres in East Asia”.

“While universities will understandably hope for the best, they must also prepare for the worst by diversifying their academic partnerships and international student bodies to mitigate the risk of financial and strategic dependencies on potentially hostile autocratic countries,” he added.

Without adequate consideration of these science policy questions, universities “risk passively slipping into ill-informed policy extremes”, the report says, echoing calls by Lord Johnson in March 2021 for the UK to “urgently” improve its monitoring of academic links with China.

“At one extreme, in which we become increasingly embroiled in a global circling of the wagons, with nations prioritising economic sovereignty over mutual interdependence, we may blindly adopt a needlessly risk-averse set of policies that cripple global science,” it says.

“At the other extreme, we sleepwalk into engaging in scientific collaboration with countries whose interests are fundamentally inimical to our own,” the report continues, adding that, in this scenario, universities would “naively provide scientific know-how, legitimacy and support to regimes that threaten the international system, engage in pervasive human rights abuses, and seek to harm us.”

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