Why connections between scientists are good for everyone

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 and with the well-documented disruptions to normal research processes, such as lab closures and travel restrictions, we were eager to investigate the collaboration experiences between United States and Chinese academic scientists.

Our goal was to understand how they were able to successfully produce knowledge and what could be learned from their experiences. We selected US and Chinese scientists because in early 2020 they were the two largest producers of articles on the topic, they had collaborated more than scientists from any two other countries and the two countries had ongoing geopolitical tensions surrounding science and technology cooperation.

As part of our research, we were particularly interested in the reasons US and Chinese scientists collaborate, how the pandemic impacted their collaboration experiences and how scientists were navigating the securitised research environment targeting collaboration between the two countries.

We interviewed about 100 scientists and surveyed about 250 scientists across the US and China who collaborated with the other country on COVID-19 research. The general trends in our findings provide valuable information to understand and support US and Chinese scientists’ international collaborations so that they are well positioned to respond effectively during crisis situations.

Key findings

Scientists tended to collaborate with others who they had collaborated with in the past as opposed to forming new collaborative relationships.

Most scientists in our sample had known or collaborated with their US or Chinese counterparts prior to the start of the pandemic. They chose to collaborate with colleagues in their existing professional networks as opposed to those with whom they had not collaborated.

This choice may have been the result of reduced opportunities to form new ties during the pandemic because of international travel restrictions as well as the need to produce knowledge quickly. These existing networks reduced the time scientists had to establish new relationships.

Scientists were largely driven to collaborate through their own agency and the most important reasons for collaboration were shared interest in topics and established trust.

Global science has been described as a self-organising system in which scientists establish ties through their own agency as opposed to being encouraged or compelled to collaborate due to external policy-related factors, such as government programmes or funding requirements.

Likewise, the most important reasons for collaborating are in line with the various socio-cognitive factors that motivate scientists to collaborate in general. Other scientific factors included access to data or a collaborator’s methodological expertise. These findings highlight a considerable overlap between the reasons why scientists collaborate internationally during times of crisis and non-crisis.

Shared ethnicity and culture played an important role in creating and promoting collaboration between ethnic Chinese US-based and China-based scientists.

We observed significant differences in the importance of ethnicity and culture for collaborating when comparing ethnic Chinese scientists with non-ethnic Chinese scientists.

Shared Chinese ethnicity as well as cultural knowledge and experiences not only motivated ethnic Chinese scientists to collaborate but also helped them to communicate more effectively and establish a mutual understanding that made collaboration easier. In this way, shared ethnicity and culture were shown to play important roles in linking US and Chinese scientists, as shown in other research studies.

Scientists generally indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic did not pose significant challenges to their international collaboration.

Scientists explained that international collaboration generally involves some element of remote collaboration, and the pandemic did not fundamentally change how collaboration would have occurred as part of their research projects.

However, in some cases, travel restrictions and a lack of face-to-face interaction limited their capacity to fully undertake research. In situations in which scientists had plans for team members to work in each other’s labs and engage in bench work, they indicated that an inability to travel did limit the extent to which work was able to be completed. In these cases, less research was conducted than would have been possible otherwise.

Both groups of US and Chinese scientists made it clear how political influence in science is broadly disrupting potential collaborations between the two countries.

Most scientists stated that, because their published research on COVID-19 did not involve sensitive information or they did not receive government funding to conduct their research, they had little concern about government scrutiny of their work and ties to their foreign collaborators.

However, ethnically Chinese US-based scientists did discuss a climate of fear and uncertainty due to the US federal prosecution of academic scientists with ties to China. For some, this has resulted in restricting relationships with Chinese scientists or cutting ties with them altogether, losing US government funding and being investigated and disciplined by their universities.

Such impacts on working relationships were also discussed by China-based scientists, who have experienced distancing by US colleagues and more restrictions on collaboration and exchange due to changes in US university and government policies.

Building relationships over time

Together these findings point to the importance of the US and China, the two largest scientific producers in the world, remaining open to scientific cooperation and continually supporting cross-border formation of ties among scientists at all times. Established ties played a key role in scientists’ ability to come together and produce knowledge in an effective and timely manner.

Given the disruptions to travel and the normal ways that ties form, such as via face-to-face interactions at conferences, it is doubtful that the US and China would have been able to produce as much knowledge together if the ties between scientists had not been established before the pandemic began.

For this reason, political disruptions during global crises may reduce scientists’ collaboration opportunities, especially when urgent research is needed. While this study focused on successfully published collaborations, it remains unknown how many more studies were never completed because of the political strain between the US and China.

Thus, it is essential that universities continue to facilitate as well as promote new opportunities to create scholarly relationships between scientists in these two countries. Despite geopolitical tensions, these two scientific superpowers have come together to address COVID-19, a major global crisis. These networks were not formed overnight but built on trusting relationships between scientists.

International students and scholars play an essential role in forming ties that can be tapped for research collaboration long after they leave the country. Those who remain in the host country are also key when it comes to bridging collaborative networks with scientists in their home country. Given that other global challenges may arise, it is especially important that international scientific networks are safeguarded and nurtured.

John P Haupt is a research specialist at the University of Arizona, United States; Jenny J Lee is a professor at the University of Arizona; Wen Wen is an associate professor at Tsinghua University, China; Die Hu is a postdoctoral researcher at Tsinghua University; and Morris Hsin-Mu Chen is a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. Note: This study was funded by the National Science Foundation: “Understanding the Nature of US-China Research Collaborations on COVID-19” Award #2129476.