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The Trump administration is curtailing visas for Chinese scientists. That could backfire.

Excluding foreign researchers and students hurts U.S. innovation — and coronavirus collaboration

American flags and Chinese flags displayed together in Beijing in 2018. (Andy Wong/AP)

On Monday, President Trump restricted several categories of work visas for non-American citizens, citing the need to protect U.S. jobs. Last month, a White House executive order suspended visas issued to Chinese researchers and some graduate and postgraduate students, citing military security concerns as well as fears of China illegally acquiring U.S. intellectual property.

Both of these moves, and restrictions on international students in general, could damage U.S. science and innovation. Here’s what you need to know.

The vast majority of Chinese students remain in the United States

Between 1997 and 2017, more than 5.2 million students left China to study abroad. The majority came to the United States on J-1 or F-1 visas, with fewer heading to European universities. The very best and brightest students and researchers tend to remain in the United States (less so in Europe).

Research by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies revealed that fears of a “reverse brain drain” from the United States to China are greatly overstated. To be sure, the number of students returning to China has risen along with the rise in the number coming to the United States — and there have been cases of Chinese researchers helping to transfer U.S. technology to China.

Sen. Tom Cotton suggested Chinese STEM students head home after studying in the U.S. The research shows otherwise.

But attracting immigrants to study and work in the United States is the lifeblood of U.S. science. In fact, 40 percent of Nobel Prizes awarded for U.S. research have gone to immigrants. In 2018, United States universities awarded more than 4,000 STEM doctorates to Chinese nationals. Between 70 and 80 percent of Chinese STEM graduates remain in the United States for at least five years — and many become U.S. citizens. And those who return to China often continue to work with U.S. counterparts.

China’s scientific advancement has emulated the U.S. system

China has rapidly emerged as a scientific power, even with thousands of Chinese STEM graduates remaining in the United States and Europe. In 2019 alone, researchers based in China published more than 600,000 articles in journals indexed in the Web of Science — that’s more than 12 percent of published works, up from only a handful of articles in the early 1980s. China has joined a global network of scientific cooperation, which the United States helped to build and from which we draw good will and admiration.

Importantly for bilateral relations, China has grown a science system that emulates the U.S. model in many ways, including at least an acknowledgment of the importance of trust, integrity and open sharing. Chinese researchers seek to publish in elite scientific journals in English, subject to peer review — a quality assurance process refined in the United States over the past half-century.

China has built science and technology institutions that mirror those of the United States, including the China Association for Science and Technology, an organization similar in mission to the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, like the U.S. CDC.

While much of the early scientific and technological work from China was imitative and derivative, over the past decade, China’s work has become increasingly creative, original and of high quality. Chinese-authored work is increasingly likely to be highly cited by other scientists — a mark of impact and possibly of quality. Much of this high-impact work is co-authored with researchers from other countries, including the United States, providing a benefit to U.S. scientific capabilities.

How coronavirus changes the political outlook in China and the U.S.

U.S. and China scientists are cooperating on coronavirus research

At the political level, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has complained that China has not been cooperating on pandemic issues — but at the scientific level, the two countries have been working together to study the novel coronavirus. In the earliest days of the pandemic, Chinese institutions led the world in coronavirus research, contributing early works to the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine and Nature. The National Natural Science Foundation of China was the largest funder of the early research output on coronavirus.

Cooperation with the United States followed. Since January 2020, our analysis shows that researchers from the two countries have co-published more than 700 English-language articles on the coronavirus. This represents well over 1,000 researchers cooperating across borders on virology, immunology, genetics and patient care research. One of the earliest cooperative articles on medical treatment for covid-19 was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, authored by representatives from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Tsinghua and Peking medical schools, Beijing Ditan Hospital, the United Kingdom’s University of Manchester and University of Oxford, and the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Before the 2020 pandemic, our research shows that Chinese research institutes were already world leaders in coronavirus research, based on the number of scientific papers as well as international connections. Since January, China has published close to 5,000 articles on the novel coronavirus in international journals. More knowledge enriches everyone.

What might be lost as China and the U.S. make it harder for scholars to travel back and forth?

China’s resources include the Wuhan Institute of Virology — part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences — which has received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to conduct and cooperate in cutting-edge research. NIH cut this funding abruptly in April, bowing to pressure from the White House. This type of NIH funding helps laboratories worldwide serve as listening posts for emergent infectious diseases. Other locations include Abuja, Nigeria; New Delhi; Lusaka, Zambia; and Kampala, Uganda.

U.S.-China cross-border relationships, like most scientific collaborations, begin with face-to-face meetings. Sending graduates back to China or preventing them from working in the United States afterward would almost certainly diminish the pool of scientific talent in the United States, as well as overall research productivity.

In a connected world, limiting visas to Chinese scholars and students puts America at risk of losing its status as the world’s leader in science and technology research. And limiting U.S. options for welcoming top talent may greatly enhance China’s science and technology strength — at the cost of U.S. competitiveness.

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Caroline S. Wagner holds the Milton and Roslyn Wolf Chair in International Affairs at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, Ohio State University. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Thanks to team members Caroline V. Fry, Yi Zhang and Xiaojing Cai for contributing to this article.