The Biden administration has inherited from its predecessor some of the most tricky problems of information statecraft to face the United States since the end of World War II. The problems go to the core of how the technological foundations of the U.S. economy, and by extension the global economy, function. On the one hand, the Biden administration needs to maximize the development of technology and scientific expertise in order to increase economic growth and properly lay the foundation of what almost seems to be a tech industrial policy. On the other hand, the administration is under enormous pressure to undercut Chinese efforts to compete technologically with the United States and its allies.
Unfortunately, these two goals stand in tension with one another. Free inquiry and the rapid sharing of complex information tends to increase the efficiency and productivity of the scientific enterprise, whether within or across borders. But transparency and sharing are antithetical to efforts to box China out of a competitive position in the most advanced technological sectors. Thus, in this situation the demands of great power conflict run directly counter to the pursuit of rapid technological (and consequentially economic) growth.
As Rory Truex argues in the Atlantic, “In the end, the U.S. government must also accept that some degree of theft, plagiarism, and loss of intellectual property is the price of America’s open approach. Data and computer code are shared, working papers are circulated, research is disseminated publicly, and participation is open to all… This model can be abused by bad players—perhaps even by spies—but it is still working far better than a more restrictive alternative would.”
As Truex suggests, the American system of higher education is where the rubber hits the road with respect to many of these questions. Unfortunately, support for the higher education industry in the United States has become a partisan issue, both due to longstanding ideological tensions and an increasingly sharp divide between voters with or without a college degree. These tensions are mirrored in Europe, which has also seen cultural conflict over the freedom of academic institutions. Fortunately, even some critics of U.S. higher education have warned against draconian restrictions on the admittance of Chinese students to U.S. universities.
A future in which the United States sharply limits intellectual exchange, whether by impeding cross-pollinating research or stymying the facilitation of international student study within the U.S., is a future in which technology develops more slowly and the economy grows less efficiently. Similarly, a future in which Chinese students struggle to study in the United States, whether out of fear of their safety or because they cannot get visas, is a world in which the U.S. system of higher education is weakened and impoverished.