United States: Research partnerships cloud

EducationWorld January 2021 | International News

US research universities have tempered hopes for a Biden administration boost in their budgets and overseas partnerships, seeing security and political complications well beyond Donald Trump’s anti-science and nativist antagonisms.

In part, according to the main grouping of US research universities, this is because President Trump caused far less harm to their operations than he threatened, and in part, such academic leaders believe, because a government led by Joe Biden will still struggle to balance the need for global teamwork with the need for national security. “This is going to be a continual fight,” Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, says of the quest for clear, consistent and balanced guidelines for US scientists seeking partners from abroad.

President-elect Biden’s friendlier attitude toward foreigners, by itself, won’t be enough to overcome real concerns within US intelligence and law-enforcement communities about the threat they see from China and other potentially hostile nations, says Smith. Regardless of the administration, federal security officials tend to seek broad restrictions, sometimes covering entire fields of study.

That can harm the development of US capabilities in fields such as artificial intelligence because other countries — including China — may have reached breakthroughs that US scientists haven’t yet achieved. “The more we put walls around broader things in our country, the more walls we put up around that knowledge in other countries,” says Smith.

And President Biden’s approach to China, in particular, may not be significantly softer, explains Smith, given serious concerns within the Democratic Party about China’s record on human rights and democracy. This situation, he says, should serve as a warning to US universities — which have grown to depend heavily on Chinese students and researchers — that the time to find a more diverse set of options is approaching. “We have to rethink everything going forward in terms of finding students and scientists. We would be naive to think that it was going to continue forever,” he says of the current high levels of Chinese student interest.

In terms of spending on science, Trump took office in 2017 pursuing a budget proposal that would have slashed federal research spending by 17 percent, and then urged similar multibillion-dollar reductions each year afterwards. But lawmakers from both parties refused, pushing budget plans through Congress that gave scientific research funding modest but steady annual gains. That’s expected to continue, with even greater emphasis on health fields led by cancer, which became a matter of deep personal interest to Biden after the death of his son Beau in 2015.

“Congress has done pretty well by research funding” during the Trump administration, says Smith. “It is unclear if we will see huge changes” in funding levels during the Biden administration, he says.

(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education and The Economist)

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