What can Biden do for science? Experts share their views

12 Nov 2020 | News

The president-elect should convene world leaders to re-establish ‘rules of engagement’ on science. And China has to meet him halfway, a Science|Business webcast heard

US bill with mask

World leaders should urgently convene to re-establish the “rules of engagement” for science collaboration in the wake of president Donald Trump’s election defeat, experts suggested on Thursday.

The event "Science faction: What the US election results mean for world science" is available here on Youtube.

In the view of participants in a Science|Business webcast, this global assembly should press leaders of the big industrial nations to open – or re-open – their research systems, while also ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines are freely available to everyone in the world.An international summit “would really show that senior leaders are turning the page,” said Robert-Jan Smits, former director-general of the European Commission’s research and innovation directorate and president of the Eindhoven University of Technology. “Let’s see them launch a common pot of money for the best brains to work together,” he said.

Smits said Europe is expecting more “cooperation, trust, openness and last but not least, respect” from president-elect Joe Biden’s administration. Biden’s declared election victory last week also “puts enormous pressure on China to re-enter the global scene and to really accept the rules of the game for global engagement,” Smits said. “We’re all looking at the US and Biden. But it should also be a wakeup call in China.”

Doubts over the reliability of Trump as a partner have contributed to the pursuit of technological sovereignty by the EU, but this could quickly flip around if the other superpowers agree on a new, more open direction, Smits said. “We were forced into that direction by Trump’s America First and what we saw in China. Europe will be first to say, let’s re-commit to global cooperation,” he said.

Experts agreed China now had to do its bit to fix relations that grew increasingly hostile under Trump’s tenure.

Restate the norms

“A restatement of the norms of engagement is really needed,” said Caroline Wagner, chair of international affairs at Ohio State University. She predicted a return to “an openness of the US system to international visitors of all kinds” under Biden. Trump’s clampdown on visas had a “dampening effect” on global science collaboration, she said.

Wagner also advocated a coming-together summit to reset the dial on international research collaboration. “We also need shared pots of money. Let’s let people organise based on talent rather than nationality,” she said. The Chinese government has to meet Biden halfway. “China has a responsibility – they need to act more stately and responsibly,” said Wagner.

“If we were to combine our powers, we could do a tremendous thing for the world,” Wagner said, noting that in the early days of the pandemic there was intense collaboration between US and Chinese science groups. “They churned out important work together. Then the politicians started mucking it up.”

Wang Huiyao, member of China’s state council and president of the think tank, Center for China and Globalisation, hopes to see things “go back to normal a bit” between China and the US.

There was ill feeling in China, he said, over broad allegations made by the Trump administration against Chinese researchers working in the US. “They said everyone was a spy, which is way too much,” said Wang.

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Christopher Wray, has said there are counter intelligence risks in Chinese professors, scientists, and students “across basically every discipline.”

“Parents in China are afraid to send their students to the US. But I hope now that common sense and rationality can prevail,” Wang said. He saw sense in convening a summit, and said it should focus on vaccines.

Wang expects the Biden government will be more willing than Trump was to work with China in global fora. “At least then, we can talk. It’s difficult now to talk,” said Wang.

‘Whole different attitude’

The president-elect brings “a whole different attitude”, said Albert Teich, research professor of science, technology and international affairs at George Washington University. “He said he’d repeal some of the more draconian measures Trump introduced. You won’t see the kind of unpredictable changes like the travel ban, or limits on visas and foreign students under Biden.”

The president-elect “respects expertise” and will surround himself with people who are knowledgeable,” Teich said. “Trump [by contrast] made decisions by the seat of his pants.”

Teich agreed that China should be willing to work more transparently with the US. He referred to China’s Thousand Talents scheme, through which the country hires senior US researchers, sometimes in secret, as a particular flash point. “This recruitment was going on behind the backs of the American government. So we need to change the operating style of both governments,” said Teich.

Wang, however, disagreed that there was anything controversial about the Chinese programme. “Every country has the right to attract talent. The US is attracting Chinese talent, why can’t we attract some back?” he said.

Smits reiterated that, once Biden has demonstrated a different approach from the US, “The ball will move to China’s court. Everyone will look to see if China is also reaching out the hand; that it’s offering much more transparency; that there is much more openness from them on research programmes.”

Green growth and Trumpism

Biden increases optimism there will be serious action on climate change having campaigned on the most ambitious climate platform of any presidential candidate in history, promising to spend $2 trillion over four years to overhaul much of the country to clean energy.

“Now, there will be enormous opportunities to realise a global green agenda,” said Smits. The Biden green agenda will “motivate and drive corporates to step up investment because they know there will be markets for that. They’ll jump into this,” he said.

Smits added, “Let’s hope Biden won’t be completely absorbed by domestic politics. He has a lot on his hands.” The Democrats’ failure to take control of the Senate means it will be much harder to get green policies passed in the coming years.

And the bitter divide in America over climate change remains, with Trump having won 70 million votes in the election. Trumpism, “has a long way to go,” said Wang.

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