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Scottish physiologist John Speakman (left) runs a laboratory in Beijing while maintaining his affiliation with the United Kingdom’s University of Aberdeen, where he also has a laboratory.

Agata Rudolf

Chinese ties don’t faze European funders

China’s evolution into a scientific superpower has altered the politics behind the global movement of scientific talent. Once seen as a benign step in fostering international collaboration, such migrations are now viewed as a potential threat to domestic research by officials in the United States and Australia. In this week’s two-part series, ScienceInsider examines the nature of interactions between European and Chinese scientists. Today, we focus on how European funding agencies view the issue. Tomorrow, we explore the experiences of several European researchers who have worked in China (although some scientists cited the current political climate in declining to comment). Some aspects of their stories will sound familiar to academic scientists anywhere in the world, whereas others have a uniquely Chinese flavor.  

Katharina Kohse-Höinghaus needs some time to describe all her ties to top-ranked Chinese research institutions.

“Let me think,” says the professor of chemistry at Germany’s Bielefeld University. “At Tsinghua University I’m a member of the advisory board for its clean energy center. At Shanghai Jiao Tong [University] I’m associated with the engineering school. At Nanjing University it’s thermal engineering. And at the CAS [Chinese Academy of Sciences] institute I’m a guest professor in thermal physics.”

Each collaboration, she says, is with a Chinese scientist who spent time abroad before returning to China under the country’s Thousand Talents Program, which aims to recruit researchers, both Chinese and non-Chinese, working in other nations.

That fact alone would probably set off an alarm in the United States. U.S. government officials see such talent recruitment programs as part of a concerted Chinese effort to steal the fruits of federally funded research, and some universities have even dismissed researchers for inappropriate foreign ties.

But government funding agencies in Europe and the United Kingdom harbor fewer suspicions about grantees who maintain robust ties with China. With smaller domestic research enterprises, they have long viewed foreign collaboration as a plus. “There is a lot less paranoia about China in the U.K.,” says John Speakman, a Scottish physiologist who for the past 8 years has spent most of his time at the CAS Institute for Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing while retaining his position at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom.

The European Union’s flagship research program, Horizon 2020, does not require researchers to disclose any support from foreign sources, neither when they apply for a grant nor after they receive one. In addition, EU rules explicitly permit grantees to operate a second lab outside their home institution. And in the United Kingdom, an official from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the nation’s main funding agency based in Swindon, explains that “any policies on researchers declaring overseas funding to their employers [are] set by that institution.”

Science found that no European funder has taken steps to address foreign influence that are comparable to what U.S. agencies have done over the past year. The U.S. National Institutes of Health has launched investigations of more than 180 grantees that have prompted at least two U.S. universities to dismiss faculty members, all of Asian descent, for not properly disclosing ties to China or violating the confidentiality of peer review. The U.S. Department of Energy has decided that its scientists cannot participate in China’s foreign talent programs and is weighing a ban on foreign support from China and a few other countries. The U.S. government is pursuing criminal charges against at least two researchers for allegedly hiding ties to China. And the National Science Foundation has added a checkbox to its application designed to flag proposals with a foreign component.

In Europe, however, such foreign connections might even give grant applicants a competitive edge. “If the DFG gets a proposal for a big center and it omits certain locations [outside Germany] where good research is being done, reviewers will point to that,” says Rainer Gruhlich, who heads the North American office of DFG, Germany’s main research funding agency, in Washington, D.C. “They may say, ‘Have you looked at what is happening at this [foreign] university?’ Or even, ‘Why did you invite this investigator to be part of your team when there is a Chinese scientist who is much better?’”

European funding agencies do look out for potential conflicts of interest, their officials told Science. They also have policies designed to prevent double dipping—getting funding for work already supported by another entity. And DFG officials worry that some international collaborations could open the door to what Gruhlich calls “ethics dumping.” It’s a term that covers a lowering of ethical standards regarding scientific integrity, the treatment of women and minorities, and efforts to advance the careers of young scientists.

But Gruhlich says his agency has little interest in closely monitoring specific working arrangements. “We fund basic research, and we want to know if a scientist can carry out the project,” he says. “We don’t ask where a scientist is spending his or her time.”

That approach makes perfect sense to Speakman. “My department knows I’m away in China and what I’m doing,” says Speakman, who spends 9 months a year in Beijing and 3 months in Aberdeen carrying out his research on metabolism. CAS’s version of Thousand Talents has helped keep his Beijing lab running, while UKRI funds his Aberdeen lab. “It’s not an issue,” he says about that arrangement.

European countries have traditionally been more open to global partnerships since the end of World War II, Gruhlich says. One reason is that their domestic research enterprises aren’t big enough to satisfy the needs of their scientists. “Whereas in the United States,” he notes, “you have so many facilities that international collaboration is not so much of a core principle.”

China’s inexorable rise in global scientific rankings has also added to U.S. suspicions that it is using collaborations to steal intellectual property, Gruhlich speculates. “If you look at metrics like the number of patents or their overall investment in research, it’s only a matter of time until China surpasses the United States,” he says. Germany doesn’t consider itself in direct competition with China, he adds, because of China’s vastly larger economy and scientific workforce.

But Gruhlich says it may be time for European countries to take a closer look at the nature of their foreign collaborations. “We tend to think that international collaboration is uniformly positive,” he says. “But maybe this is a little naïve. The business sector is already aware of the downsides, while in research we are just starting to reflect on the strengths and dangers that come with international collaboration.”

Kohse-Höinghaus, whose ties to China go back to the 1990s, thinks cracking down on international collaborations could do more harm than good. For example, she notes that China is now the largest affiliate of the international Combustion Institute, an academic society with chapters around the world that she recently led. And she can’t imagine why any European or U.S. funding agency would cut itself off from those scientists.

“The problems we face in the energy sector are so enormous that global collaborations are essential,” Kohse-Höinghaus says. “So as long as there are no negatives, I hope we can emphasize the positives.”

With reporting by Tania Rabesandratana, Erik Stokstad, and Gretchen Vogel.