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Dance With the Dragon - Research partnerships grow alongside U.S.-Chinese competition. + By Mark Matthews

Off China's coast lies a haven for ocean scientists. Hundreds of kilometers wide and just a few hundred meters deep, the continental shelf in the East China, South China, and Yellow seas presents an array of aquatic ecosystems in gently descending depths, amid tidal flows, reefs, a range of temperatures, and varied exposure to sunlight. No researchers appreciate this maritime laboratory more than experts in acoustics, “the eyes of the submarine world.” For them, the multiple seabed, sediment, and ambient noise levels offer abundant ways to measure how sound and vibrations travel. The findings of these engineers and ocean scientists provide crucial insights to the U.S. Navy in shielding harbors from terrorists, improving surveillance and mine detection, and designing stealthier submarines for a future conflict on the seas.

Of course, this watery workshop is also a strategic prize. As oil tankers and containerships ply commercially vital shipping channels, the People’s Republic of China and its neighbors compete noisily for rocky islets set amid sizable undersea oil and natural gas deposits. And while China’s expanding navy asserts regional clout, the United States is vying to preserve its Pacific preeminence. Occasionally, tensions bring the two countries close to blows. This happened in 1994, when China dispatched fighter jets to intercept U.S. warplanes over the Yellow Sea and a Chinese nuclear attack submarine came within 21 miles of the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.

The year following this menacing encounter, however, the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the Chinese Academy of Sciences began working together to probe the acoustical mysteries beneath the Yellow Sea. Hailed as a success by both sides, the ongoing ocean acoustics partnership held its third international conference in Beijing this past June, drawing 80 papers and nearly 100 participants from 11 countries.

Welcome to the strange yet mutually rewarding world of U.S.-Chinese research collaboration, where a global superpower and its dynamic Asian rival team up to advance fields ranging from cyberinfrastructure to nanotechnology, electronics, clean energy, food safety, and language translation technology. The partnership began when the two nations renewed diplomatic relations in 1979. Today, projects vary in size from workshops to multiyear grants of $1 million or more. A five-year National Science Foundation-backed pursuit of low-carbon, sustainable cities in the United States, India, and China led by environmental engineer Anu Ramaswami of the University of Minnesota, for example, will draw researchers and students from 14 institutions in the three countries. So many major U.S. universities and corporations have links with Chinese partner institutions that announcements of new projects are becoming routine. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew scant attention in May when she expanded the U.S.-China EcoPartnership to include joint pursuit of clean-energy solutions by the University of California, Los Angeles and Peking University.

In part, such collaborations reflect the growth of international university and industry research-and-development partnerships, facilitated by ever faster communication networks like the Asia-Pacific Advanced Network (APAN) and efficient data-sharing organizations such as PRAGMA, the Pacific Rim Application and Grid Middleware Assembly. As Emily Ashworth, head of NSF’s Beijing office, puts it, “Scientific research is global. When you find the right partner, you do business.”

But China’s size, ambition, and emphasis on engineering put the U.S.-Chinese collaboration in a special category. It is propelled by the PRC’s drive to upgrade from a manufacturing to an innovation economy; by multinational companies eager to tap Chinese R&D talent; by faculty and student exchanges; and by partnerships forged among and with a burgeoning population of U.S.-trained Chinese engineers and scientists. While China’s own universities now award more natural science and engineering Ph.D.’s than do American schools, the United States remains a favored destination for Chinese graduate students, with applications increasing at an annual rate of close to 20 percent. Indeed, while international collaboration represents a declining proportion of China’s research output, coauthorship with Americans has been rising. China’s production of engineering articles has been growing at an annual 16 percent clip, and the country now outpaces Japan in U.S. research collaborations. Overall R&D spending in China grew 28 percent between 2008 and 2009.

“The Chinese have done it right: They invested in their people and infrastructure.” – Jeffrey Simmen - Director of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington.

“What is American in all this is much more difficult to discern,” says Denis Fred Simon, a vice provost at Arizona State University and coauthor of China’s Emerging Technological Edge. “People don’t realize how embedded China’s research system and our research system are.”

And there’s the rub. Some China-watchers fear that, aided by the United States, the world’s most populous nation is modernizing so fast it could devour America’s technological lunch, with dire results for the U.S. economy and national security. “China doesn’t want to make some things and buy others; they want to make virtually everything, especially advanced technology products and services,” warned Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in May.

A Wary Congress

The amount of cross-fertilization makes Congress uneasy. House Republicans, in particular, suspect China of exploiting scientific exchanges to spy on America and steal intellectual property. A report this year by ITIF said China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property costs almost 1 million U.S. jobs and caused $48 billion in U.S. economic losses in 2009 alone. Wary that Beijing is acquiring the capacity to destroy U.S. satellites, Congress has barred NASA from space cooperation. GOP lawmakers also accuse the Obama administration of getting too cozy with China and at one point slashed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s budget to punish it for hosting Chinese officials.

Such reactions are not new. Congressional limits imposed a decade ago chilled Air Force research cooperation. Today, some schools that perform sensitive defense research, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, are still reluctant to join aerospace research projects with China. And although the ONR-backed underwater acoustics collaboration is considered basic research and therefore unclassified, it has, from time to time, raised eyebrows inside the Pentagon, says Jeffrey Simmen, who led ONR’s Ocean Acoustics Program for 10 years. An applied mathematician, Simmen heads the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

But White House science adviser John Holdren insists that U.S.-Chinese cooperation on science and technology “strengthens our hand in the effort to get China to change the aspects of its conduct that we oppose.” Moreover, America can benefit from China’s “rapidly growing capabilities in many domains of S&T,” he told a House panel last year, while government-to-government cooperation can help U.S. high-tech firms gain access to enormous potential markets and allows the two countries to share costs of developing clean-energy technologies.

Back in 1979, when Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping agreed to cooperate on science and technology, Chinese academia was struggling to recover from the purges and persecution of the Cultural Revolution. The post-Mao Zedong leadership recognized that scientists had to be given freer rein if the economy was to advance, so it encouraged exchanges and overseas studies. But in the early years, Chinese university research was weak and the relationship was “highly asymmetrical,” according to Richard Suttmeier, a University of Oregon expert.

The Chinese research landscape was still decades behind the West when Jeffrey Simmen was recruiting partners in 1995. At that time, he found relatively few researchers and archaic equipment. But the nation’s recent headlong modernization rush has since carried university researchers along with it. Changes have been “beyond description,” Simmen says: vibrant laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment and “so many young, energetic, excited researchers.” “Mind-blowing,” is how Michael Pecht, director of the University of Maryland (UMD) Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering and an expert on the global electronics industry, describes China’s development of science parks – some the size of the District of Columbia – in just the past five years.

“What the Chinese have is a remarkable ability to channel their efforts in one direction,” marvels Robert Parker, executive dean of the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute, a six-year-old engineering school in Shanghai. “When they decide they want to turn, they can turn.” China’s science agencies act accordingly in how they direct funding, says Emily Ashworth, whose office facilitates connections between NSF-funded scientists and students and Chinese institutions. “It is goal-oriented – more top down.”

China’s current Five-Year Plan – its 12th – stresses science education, greater environmental awareness, and higher-value products. The country is now embarked on 16 R&D “mega-projects,” as Suttmeier calls them, including manufacturing technology, Earth observation systems, and water pollution control. Seven strategic emerging industries – clean energy technology; next-generation information technology (IT); biotechnology; high-end equipment manufacturing; alternative energy; new materials; and clean-energy vehicles – all suggest a need for highly trained engineers and strong R&D.

“The Chinese have done it right: They invested in their people and infrastructure,” says Simmen. “The only thing they don’t have is experience.” Because many academics never returned after the Cultural Revolution, researchers are mostly in their early 50s and younger.

Green Pioneers

When U.S. and Chinese policymakers share the same goals, they can mount a formidable joint effort. Take clean energy, which is driving perhaps the most ambitious government-funded collaboration to date. The U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, funded on the American side by the Department of Energy (DOE), brings together researchers from academia, national laboratories, and industry to speed inventions in advanced coal technology, energy-efficient buildings, and clean vehicles.

The five-year coal effort, led in the United States by West Virginia University and in China by Huazhong University of Science and Technology, recognizes that coal is “central to the energy systems and growth aspirations of both countries.” Beyond trying to improve existing methods for cutting CO2 emissions, like carbon capture and sequestration, the teams will try to demonstrate how algae can be used both to absorb C02 from coal combustion and to become its own “rich source of renewable energy.”

The Clean Vehicles Collaboration, led by the University of Michigan and Beijing’s Tsinghua University, conducts research leading to novel battery designs, advanced biofuels, lighter-weight materials, more efficient electric vehicles, and vehicle-grid interaction. It also offers an opportunity to build on existing research links between American universities and Tsinghua. One member of the team is Ohio State’s Yunmi Wang, an expert on engines and powertrains who holds mechanical engineering degrees from
Tsinghua and the Universities of Minnesota and Texas.

The U.S. relationship with Tsinghua on energy comes together in the person of Chung K. (Ed) Law. A mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Princeton and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, he runs the DOE-funded Combustion Energy Frontier Research Center – a consortium of seven universities and two national labs. Recently he took on a second role, directing Tsinghua’s Center for Energy Combustion.

Government-sponsored collaborations reach well beyond energy. NSF and China’s National Natural Science Foundation are funding joint research on advanced sensors and bio-inspired technologies. The two agencies have also joined forces to support development of software that can spur scientific discovery and research productivity. Already-funded researchers who collaborate with China-based researchers can get a funding supplement.

Beyond these incentives, U.S.-based engineers tap into the growing number of Chinese researchers whose training in the United States makes them attractive recruitment targets for China-based companies, as well as Chinese universities. Graphene specialist Rodney Ruoff, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas, Austin, has continued collaborations by phone and email with two Chinese postdocs in his research group who were recruited by Chinese universities. Weiwei Cai, now a physics professor at Xiamen University, joined Ruoff in publishing research on the isotope effects on the thermal properties of graphene. Yanwu Zhu, now a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China, worked with Ruoff on a new carbon material, chemically activated graphene. “What we’re working on now is an extension of what had been going on in my lab here,” Ruoff says.


Complementary Skills

That distinguished American researchers are reaching out to Chinese collaborators is itself a sign of China’s growing strength in science and engineering. Ray Baughman, a University of Texas at Dallas materials scientist, nanotechnology trailblazer and member of the National Academy of Engineering, can attract collaborators from a number of countries – and does. “Any collaboration has to combine unique skill sets of different partners,” he says. A visitor to China since 1987, he started conducting research with Chinese only a few years ago. Among emerging skills he’s noticed: high-resolution imaging, chemical synthesis, and an understanding of structures at the atomic level. Many Chinese researchers bring a solid foundation in physics, chemistry, and math. “They have a lot of very good scientists,” says the NSF’s Ashworth.

University researchers aren’t the only ones taking notice of Chinese talent. As U.S. and multinational companies establish research and development centers in China – the better to meet the particular demands of the huge local market – they’re trying to recruit the best and brightest young Chinese engineers. U.S. training is a big plus.

One place these companies turn is the UM-SJTU Joint Institute, which offers an undergraduate-through-doctoral-level curriculum, taught in English, as well as opportunities for students to spend time both in Ann Arbor and Shanghai. Parker, the executive dean, says General Motors, General Electric, Phillips, Covidien, which makes medical equipment, and John Deere are among the firms that have come through the institute to meet Chinese faculty and seek access to students. A mechanical engineer specializing in vehicle noise and vibrations, Parker has himself conducted research for GM’s China subsidiary.

Concern about China’s space threat hasn’t prevented U.S. space agencies from tapping Chinese talent. Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have employed Chinese electrical engineer Feng Xu, winner of a 2011 National Natural Science Award of China. As a postdoc visiting scientist in NOAA’s satellite oceanography division, Xu is credited with developing a quality monitoring system. Now holding a green card, he works both at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where he has published imaging research, and at Intelligent Automation Systems Inc., which conducts research sponsored by U.S. military and civilian agencies.

Aeronautics is a growing area of joint U.S.-Chinese research and development, one where experts say China is catching up rapidly. “At the current rate of progress it is likely that most sectors China will be able to compete on broadly equal terms with the West by 2020,” predicted a 2010 article in Aerospace America, published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The AIAA signed a memorandum of understanding last November with the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics to promote what then AIAA Executive Director Robert Dickman called “meaningful scientific exchanges in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics.”

In May 2011, the National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering jointly sponsored a workshop to improve collaboration on global satellite navigation systems, the international utility known as GPS. Opening that workshop, Chinese Academy President Zhou Ji summed up China’s current challenge in science and engineering. The most critical task, he said, “is to improve an independent innovation capability.” Besides enhancing the overall scientific and technological quality and integrated competitiveness of its industries, “China will have to cultivate and develop new industries of strategic importance and foster new sources of economic growth while taking innovation as a driving principle.”

Shanghai, China

Whether China can become an “innovation economy” is a source of dispute – with important competitive implications for the United States. A number of Americans, including Vice President Joe Biden, argue that China’s repressive regime inhibits new ideas. NSF’s Emily Ashworth notes that despite China’s heavy investment in research and engineering skills, “they don’t have many world-class breakthroughs. Creativity needs nurturing.” But she says that Chinese returning from U.S. graduate schools could change this picture. The University of Maryland’s Michael Pecht, who both teaches and consults in China and has followed the growth of the country’s electronics industry, notes that the Chinese are “rethinking education.” At universities, “a lot of higher-level people – deans, provosts, presidents – were educated in the United States,” he says. As with the technology and managerial skills transferred from Western to Chinese companies, Chinese academic institutions are liberalizing and encouraging innovation and creativity, he says.

What the Chinese lack in innovation, they seem to make up in being fast followers, especially in engineering-based innovation, where China is showing real strengths. ITIF’s Atkinson told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that “the bottom line is that America ignores China’s innovation policies and growing innovation capability at its own peril.” In electronics, China’s momentum “is such that any past shortages in experience and intellectual capital have been overcome,” write Pecht and coauthor Leonard Zuga in their 2009 paper, “China as Hegemon of the Global Electronics Industry: How It Got That Way and Why It Won’t Change.”

In ocean acoustics, the advantage the United States once held in research capacity — one that once led Simmen and his colleagues to be greeted by the Chinese “like royalty” — has passed. Now China can collaborate with many countries. “They do it bigger,” says Simmen. “Eventually, it will be better.”

Mark Matthews is editor of Prism.

Illustration By Kazushige Nitta


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