US response to China’s techno threats: Do what you do well

As China moves to achieve technological dominance, the US must continue to value the very things that foster innovation.

Sun Qiang and Poo Muming/Chinese Academy of Sciences via AP
Cloned monkeys Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua sit together with a fabric toy. For the first time, researchers have used the cloning method that produced Dolly the sheep to create two healthy monkeys, potentially bringing scientists closer to being able to do that with humans.

It is no trade secret that China sees itself in a global contest with the United States for technological superiority. In just the past week, evidence of this competition was made clear in four news stories:

Scientists in China have created two cloned monkeys, a first in research that might lead to human cloning. A federal jury found a Chinese wind turbine manufacturer guilty of stealing technology from a US company. President Trump slapped tariffs on imports of solar panels to counter China’s subsidy of its solar firms. And the National Science Foundation warned in a report that China now publishes more scientific research than the US.

Such news only adds to rising cries in Washington to block Chinese access to American higher education, research labs, and the US market in technology. No American phone company, for example, wants to carry a new smartphone, the Mate 10, made by Chinese giant Huawei. And more US universities are scrutinizing Beijing’s influence over Chinese students on American campuses or restricting access to research labs.

Yet the US must be careful in how it reacts to China’s competition in both basic research and applied sciences. Preventing theft of intellectual property by China is essential, of course, as American inventors must be assured they will reap the benefits of their creativity. And the US government should be increasing support of fundamental research, not cutting it.

But in some responses, the US may risk undercutting the very values that have promoted innovative thinking and that help the US maintain its status as the world’s technological leader. Fear of China’s tactics, in other words, must be checked by reminding Americans to reinforce their legacy of ingenuity, freedom of thought, and a generous tolerance of failure in the race for new discoveries in science and technology.

Creativity “is not a stock of things that can be depleted or worn out, but an infinitely renewable resource that can be constantly improved,” notes a report called the Global Creativity Index by a group of international scholars.

In a recent paper for the nonpartisan Aspen Strategy Group, two former top security officials, John Deutch and Condoleezza Rice, argue that US schools must play to their strengths more than play defense to the Chinese threat.

As Dr. Deutch told the MIT News: “The idea that we should respond to this threat by either restricting access to US universities or keeping our ideas in the United States is completely wrong. We’ll lose the tremendous advantage we have of an open university system if we do that. The only answer is for US universities to do even more in pursuing their great record of being innovative and creative.”

He contends the gains in keeping the current openness in US research will outweigh any losses from theft of technology. “Recognize that you will have some losses, but do what you do well,” Deutch said.

The US still ranks higher than China in spending on research and development. And American scientific papers tend to be cited more often than Chinese papers, a sign of higher quality. The US also has more agility than China, which has a top-down, government-mandated approach, in quickly changing course with new trends in science. Doing what you do well is still the best strategy.

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