Photo: iStock
Medical research often involves international collaboration. Photo: iStock

The Covid-19 pandemic has engendered much discussion about reducing the dependency of the US economy on China in critical areas, such as electronics and pharmaceuticals. Since China now competes on equal footing with the US in many areas of technology, a long-term problem is how the US can best compete with China in scientific, engineering, and medical research. Two issues regarding this competition are data and sustainability. At a technical level, these are complicated, but a general understanding is important for policymakers.

Science requires data, but more important, it requires the right data organized in a way that makes it accessible in a manner useful for diagnosis and research.

Consider the plight of a scientist at a major research hospital who is trying to develop a new treatment for some type of cancer. His efforts to obtain data are obstructed by the inability to access existing tissue samples in the hands of different hospitals, and perhaps by the inability to obtain needed data owing to legal barriers. For instance, patient biopsies are typically limited to those that are medically necessary, but these cannot reveal genomic differences between different regions or over key time intervals. Whatever the reason, the necessary data cannot be obtained.

The scientist may face a choice: Abandon a promising line of research, or collaborate with a laboratory in China that has the needed data. Science gains from collaboration, and China gains because it has access to expertise, while retaining control of the data.

If the US government limits these kinds of collaborative relationships without changing laws to make it possible to obtain the necessary data, the US is the loser. China has excellent scientists and the data; the US will have excellent scientists but without the data. Indeed, if the US government decides to limit cooperation with China, there is the possibility that the number of first-rate Chinese scientists already returning to China would increase, thereby decreasing US expertise.

Beyond simply China, scientific collaboration is extensive throughout the world. The US cannot just pull out. It needs to provide the best conditions for research within its own borders, as it has historically done since the end of World War II.

There are legitimate privacy and safety arguments to support restrictions on data acquisition. Every procedure has some risk. Just because someone volunteers for a study, in a society that values human life, concerns for his safety cannot be ignored.

Human involvement can be mitigated by putting greater emphasis on cell lines and animal models, but it cannot be eliminated. How this can be achieved is a technical question for medical experts. The thorny political/moral question is for government, and the public – answers are easier in a totalitarian dictatorship. There is risk in obtaining data, and there is risk in not obtaining it.

Major research developments often require many years, starting with mathematical analysis of the problem, computer simulations to test the theory under various hypothetical conditions, and physical experiments to test the theory in the real world and to adjust the theory based on observations.

The last stage can be arduous. It can require numerous iterations of the theory-experiment loop. All of this requires funding to sustain the research and to keep a research team together and active. A break in the funding can force the lead scientist to divert his attention to other projects and result in team members going elsewhere.

As currently structured, research funding is often not conducive to long-term development. One may start out with a three-year grant for theoretical analysis and simulations. On a difficult problem, this amount of time may be inadequate. This means a second theoretical grant is required. If successful, the researcher must obtain follow-up funding, often involving a larger team of collaborators, to do initial real-world testing and theory modification.

This process will likely require two more grants. Ten years without interruption is not excessive. At best, an enormous amount of time is wasted raising money. The solution is obvious: Put the funding in place at the outset to sustain the work over the time needed, so long as progress is being made.

Let us consider an all too common scenario. The initial theoretical work is successful, but no further funding is obtained. The researcher publishes a few papers, moves on to some other work, the team members go their own ways, and the original idea, although now shown to be viable, is abandoned.

But is it abandoned?

China is accused of taking ideas originating in the US and developing them, as if this shows some weakness in Chinese thinking. On the contrary, if a substantiated theory with big potential applications is sitting out there in the literature, why not run with it? If your competitor is willing to support his best people to do the speculative theory, but lacks the good sense to follow through, why be as foolish as he?

China has first-rate scientists and engineers. When a theory has been published for a new drug, alloy, or energy source, and the theory makes clear the next steps for successful development, these scientists and engineers can proceed, knowing that a key step in the development chain has been done for them.

But why stop there? A first-rate scientist has seen his work of many years shut down. It was not simply the first grant on the topic, but the many years of thinking and effort that led to the hypothesis to be theoretically studied. He wants to carry the work to fruition. He has proved its theoretical feasibility. It is his life’s major work and the applications are of great impact, perhaps a successful drug.

Then comes an outstanding offer: a fully funded laboratory, a fully supported PhD-level research staff, funding for experimentation, and the freedom to obtain the required data. It will require moving to China. He does not like the political system in China. But the facilities are great and he has family there.

The US government has set up a system to help its competitors, China among them, but others in Asia and Europe. It was a choice on the part of the US to create such a system. Complaining about the results is absurd. If you don’t want the system, then why create it?

Thirty years ago, China was not even in the game. The US could build the system it wanted, and it did.

Governmental impediments regarding data and sustainability need to be reduced. In principle, this can be done quickly; however, beyond addressing privacy and safety issues, altering the research infrastructure will be very difficult. Everything is geared to the current system, including research administration. Resistance to change will be strong. But unless the US Congress recognizes the big advantages it has given to China, and takes forceful action to reverse them, China will, with good sense, exploit those advantages.

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.