Saturday, February 22, 2020

Charles Lieber: Betcha Han Elite's Also Bust Down "Two Eggrolls and a Tsingtao"


NationalReview |  U.S. government agencies including the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health dole out more than $150 billion in research grants each year. University scientists rely on that money to fund their labs. Because grants can make or break a career, professors spend an inordinate amount of time navigating the funding labyrinth. A 2007 study found that researchers spend 42 percent of their time writing grant proposals and ensuring compliance with the conditions of the grants they receive. Stringent regulations on everything from affirmative action to animal welfare place a needless burden on scientists, reducing their productivity. Since any given proposal has a 20 percent chance of being approved, researchers devote 170 days to proposal-writing for every grant they’re awarded.

In addition to the administrative burden, American funding programs push researchers toward low-risk, low-reward studies. Since papers are evaluated by the number of citations they generate, professors tend to focus on questions that guarantee a meaningful result, rather than taking risks on novel research that might fail. Though the latter is more likely to deliver high gains in the long run, delayed recognition of breakthrough research means that scientists in new fields may have to wait years before they see results, which reduces their ability to attract funding in the interim. A 2016 paper found that “funding decisions which rely on traditional bibliometric indicators . . . may be biased against ‘high risk/high gain’ novel research.” As a result, American scientists tinker at the margins of existing research but rarely attempt breakthroughs. This partially explains the general slowdown of scientific progress over the past few decades.

Enter China. In 2008, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) announced the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), which was designed to recruit 2,000 high-quality foreign professionals within five to ten years. By 2017, the program had lured 7,000 foreigners — more than triple its target. As part of a broad push to achieve global technological supremacy, China has committed 15 percent of its GDP — equivalent to $2.1 trillion in 2019 — to human-capital development.

 The TTP doesn’t require grant applications or regulatory compliance, either. Faced with a choice between a Byzantine funding apparatus at home and instant cash from China, more than 3,000 university researchers have opted for the latter. In return for that money, the CCP requires its researchers to turn over intellectual property to which they have access, as well as to sign agreements preventing them from disclosing the results of work conducted under Chinese patronage. Some scientists have concluded that those stipulations are worthwhile. And in a perverse sense, it is true that the Chinese system provides a great deal of academic freedom: no applications, no progress reports, no environmental standards. In a few cases, TTP-linked academics have even opened “shadow labs” in China that conduct research identical to what they are doing domestically. The effect is a wholesale transfer of American intellectual capital and property to our largest geostrategic foe.