Steven Chu: Standards for Science Cooperation

Jan 28 , 2021

Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate in Physics. William R. Kenan Jr. Professor and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University. Former U.S. Secretary of Energy.


Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here, and I hope you all can hear me. In the brief plan that I have, I want to talk about several things. We just heard Mr. Jiang talk about cooperation as one need — the challenges the world faces that mostly definitely include scientific cooperation and the importance of that. 

But I also want to address some of the other things, and there have been, as we all know, tension over the last four and a half years, even more. And these tensions will not all go away, or have not all gone away as President Biden assumed office. I want to talk a little bit about that, as well. 

But let's first talk about scientific cooperation. As was mentioned in the introduction, there is crucial scientific cooperation needed for many of the challenges that the world is facing. The pandemic is one example, with its rapid communication among countries. And if acted on in a timely manner, more lives could have been saved. But still, rapid communication going forward is going to be very important. The dissemination of vaccines — these things are going to be very important. Also, the lessons, over the last year have told us that, when countries or leaders, choose to ignore scientific advice and scientific facts, it is at the peril of each country and each state in the United States. And so many of the things we thought were worst-case scenarios, it turned out, at least in the United States, to be even worse case scenarios. 

But this is a small glimpse of what is going to happen. I think the biggest challenge the world faces is climate change. And my friend and colleague Xie Zhenhua and I worked on this when I was secretary of energy and he was minister and the chief climate negotiator. In terms of climate change, international cooperation is crucial. And in particular, U.S. and Chinese cooperation is crucial for many reasons. The most important is that by sharing knowledge and best practices, and things like that, we can begin to make the transition — a much less costly transition — to carbon-free sources. 

I see China has constructed the best high-voltage transmission lines, AC and DC lines. You have mostly hydropower and pump storage. But I also see the United States helping China integrate those resources together. We in the United States, don't have the luxury of essentially a single unified, for example, state grid. But certainly many ideas and how you integrate more and more renewables, especially, becomes less expensive because it becomes a challenge to go from 30 percent to 40 to 50, 60, 70 percent renewable energy. And this will require a lot of new technology ways of putting all the pieces together. I don't consider the competitor or enemy is responsible for what happens in their country, and the U.S. is responsible for what happens in our country — so, definitely something which we will call a win-win situation.

In a larger sense, China-U.S. collaboration in science  — a much larger sense of international collaboration — is also some of the lifeblood of science. Very rarely do scientists work alone. They work in small teams or, in certain projects, even in larger teams. And if someone makes a discovery in a lab somewhere in the world and publishes it, all are free to read. We then read what that person has done, or that group has done, and learn from it. And that oftentimes spurs us, other scientists, to learn from that and it's going to affect our research. And it's this idea of open publication when you're ready to announce your results that is truly the lifeblood of science.

Unlike competition among companies — international companies within each country, where there is intense competition in science, and especially in fundamental science — it's exactly the opposite. The more people come together and talk and help each other, the more rapidly it advances. 

So, in the past year or several years, I've been trying to encourage the continued collaboration. I'm part of a group of American physicists, working with counterparts, a small team of maybe eight or 10 of us in the U.S., including the leadership of the American Physical Society. I am there, I suppose, because I'm the chair of the board of the American Association of Advancement of Science. For those of you who don't know, this represents all of science, not only in the United States but internationally. We publish Science magazine, and its family of journals. And we also try to advocate for science. They try to put legislators and lawmakers in touch with scientists, so they can use scientists as a resource, informing policy. 

And so in these discussions of Chinese physicists and American physicists, we certainly want to see if it's possible to restart deep collaboration. In the past four years, many international corporations within China and the U.S. have been put on hold or stop. If you're a member of the Department of Energy, it's very difficult to collaborate with laboratories in China, including use of facilities — arguably the world's best free electron laser, hard X-ray free electron laser — being built at ShanghaiTech, as a user of facility with the highest intensity pulsed laser light. The scientists in the Department of Energy have essentially been told, No you can't work there, the same as if China tells its scientists, No, you cannot work at CERN, as this relates to transfers. So these are things we are trying to face, and see if we can change the mood in Congress. It is not going to automatically switch. And let me, in the remaining three or four minutes, tell you what the issues are. 

The major issue is that, in response to competition, economic competition, people have conflated that with competition in academia. Now, there is competition in academia. Every scientist working in whatever laboratory they work in of course wants to be able to work on good things, to announce it, publish it, to get credit for it. But once published, then other people can have that work. 

What is worrisome to all of us practicing scientists is that if people begin to learn about what we do in our laboratory before we publish it — while we're in the act of doing the work — this is not good. And this is not constrained to one country or another.

I think in laboratories around the world, there could be a small fraction of scientists who want to know what other people are doing in a fundamentally unethical way — that is, before they're ready to announce it — and not within a scientific collaboration where, of course, you share everything. And so these are some of the concerns. This is not unique to China, the United States or anything. I, as a scientist, have had instances where ideas I've talked about before publication have been stolen, and people rushing and trying to get credit either before or at the same time. This has happened to many, many scientists. 

So, what I'm saying is that it's very important for all countries, and all academies within the countries, and all universities, to restress how important it is that there is a set of scientific ethics. And by restress I mean the following: The United States National Academy of Sciences has to put out several reports reminding people, what it means to maintain integrity in science. Science, fundamentally, is a very trusting enterprise. And while we flourish on collaboration, we also expect that people deal with these things very openly and honestly. Now when there is scientific misconduct in an American university, this can be very very bad for those scientists. They can be censured, they can actually lose their position, lose tenure. And so it's very important that both the United States and every country around the world, including China say these are the things we share; this is the value we share. What I see is mostly personal ambition, quite candidly. I don't see international efforts, but I see personal ambition, where the universities for example, or wherever this is occurring, take steps. 

Let me give you a good example. I think there was a case where a scientist in China, in Hong Kong, had used manipulated germ lines for DNA, and without authorization — things of that nature. And the Chinese government actually came down very strongly against this person. And essentially said no, this is very bad. And really, as I understand it, at least currently, he's ruined as a scientist. And so these are examples of instances where, when you see the wrongdoing, it's very important to stop it. 

Why am I telling this to this group? Because as I work as hard as I can to re-engage and to help the United States Congress and the Biden administration say that it's very important that we engage in collaboration — in international cooperation — whether it be in fundamental research or to assist people in climate change. We also need help from every country to say there are standards and principles that we all abide by. And I just want to say that this is something that is very important as I try to do my best to, for example, open up the allowance of Chinese graduates, the postdocs, to come to the United States to study. 

I think it's very good for Chinese, very good for Americans. Many people stay and contribute to the American economy. People go back, that's OK. Because spending time working in the U.S., living in the U.S., is a form of foreign diplomacy. So, right now, this is in peril, as you all know. Visas are being approved, they are not being disallowed, they are just being set aside, so these graduate students, postdocs, cannot enter. 

These are very serious things. I'm doing my best. But I hope you take it to heart when I say that restarting cooperation is very important and we are all agreed that there is a common sense that we can recognize. We want to do this in the U.S. and we encourage China to do as much as possible in China. 

With that, I will stop and thank you for your attention.