PANEL: The global geopolitics of science

21st July 2020 : 14:00 - 15:00

Category: Webinar

Research Group: Higher Education

Speaker: Brendan Cantwell, Michigan State University. Jenny J. Lee, University of Arizona. Wen Wen, Tsinghua University

Location: Online

Convener: Simon Marginson

Audience: Public

Seminar Abstract


After China’s 1980s decision, in cooperation with the United States, to open to the world in order to drive its own modernisation, followed by the end of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union in 1991, a broad consensus developed about the value of global cooperation. Market logics coincided with geopolitical logics and most of the time, with the mood of domestic politics. Over most of the next three decades the long wave of internationalisation sustained tremendous growth in trading activity, travel and tourism, cultural convergence, and international student mobility. Above all, perhaps, it brought into being a new phenomenon in history, the global science system, based on global publishing and grass roots collaboration between international author teams. Global science has grown by leaps and bounds, for the most part supported by governments and universities but above all driven by the agency of scientists themselves. Within global science by the far the largest collaboration at nation-to-nation level, 55,382 joint papers in Scopus in 2018, is that between scientists in the United States and China. Of the 500 joint papers published in 2014-2018 with the highest citation rate, 49 per cent had first authors from China, 28 per cent had first authors from the US and 23 per cent of first authors were jointly affiliated. Part of this collaboration is sustained by the large-scale presence of Chinese doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars in US universities, and there is much movement back and forth.

But global market logics have now diverged from the logics of global geo-politics and domestic politics. The world remains globally connected, as the responses in many countries to the murder of George Floyd have shown, but the new nativism and changes such as Brexit signal the end of accelerated internationalisation. One fallout is that the vast, fertile and historically unprecedented scientific collaboration between the US and China is in crisis. Amid the rapid escalation of tensions between the two countries, driven in the first instance by the bi-partisan drive in the US to reassert global primacy in science and technology, researchers from China who yesterday were welcome collaborators and contributors to American research effort are now under suspicion, typecast by the Trump administration as political agents of China’s party-state and potential raiders of American intellectual property. Visas terms are being shortened. Visa applications are being refused. Professors with joint US/China appointments are being investigated. A large group of scientists with Chinese names working in the US have been prosecuted by granting authorities on the grounds that information on their grant applications was shared with colleagues in China. The US government has foreshadowed a ban on any dealings between American universities and those Chinese universities with research links to the Chinese military, though most leading universities, in both countries, have military research links: grants from the Pentagon play a major role in the US, mostly as open public science. The US government is also putting pressure on allies such as the UK and Australia, and European countries, to adopt a more hostile attitude to China. Meanwhile China is tightening up its surveillance of researchers at home, in universities for whom the state is never far away. All of this is happening amid a global pandemic in which cooperation in relation to Covid-19 research between scientists in US, China and the rest of the world has taken on life and death importance.

What does the new geopolitics of science and the enhanced politicisation of research mean for science as a common global good? How will it affect American universities in China as well as Chinese students in the US? What does it mean for scientists from other countries, positioned at the edges of the two scientific superpowers, that share the creation of scientific knowledge? Is the global science system sufficiently robust to maintain its networks and the free flow of open science? How we effectively advance academic freedom in the US, China and the world?


About The Speakers


Brendan Cantwell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Coordinator of the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education unit at Michigan State University. He is also Joint Editor-in-Chief of the international journal Higher Education. Brendan is interested in the social, political, and economic conditions of higher education in the United States and globally.

Jenny J. Lee is a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, USA and visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Her latest research examines the intersections between geopolitics and international higher education. Her most recent work is on US-China global science.

Dr Wen Wen is currently an associate professor in higher education at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education and vice director of the university’s Centre for Asian Studies. Her latest research interests encompass higher education policy, comparative and international higher education, higher education internationalization, and college student development and assessment. Over ten years she has led over 20 influential research projects, authored over 50 publications in English and Chinese. She is currently the associate editor of Studies in Higher Education. Dr. Wen participated as an Honorary Visiting Scholar in Hong Kong University and is currently a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University.