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New Frontier of China-US Tech Decoupling: Biomedical Research

The China-US tech war has finally extended to the realm of biology.

March 15, 2024
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Linwen
Editor-in-Chief, The China Academy

The China-US tech war has finally extended to the realm of biology.

On February 28th, the White House announced that Biden has officially signed the “Executive Order on Preventing Access to Americans’ Bulk Sensitive Personal Data and United States Government-Related Data by Countries of Concern“. This restricts researchers from countries including China from accessing and utilizing US “sensitive data”, with personal health data and human genome data being key areas of concern.

Let’s examine the original text of this order:

“within 120 days of the date of this order, the APNSA, the Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council…, shall submit a report to the President, through the APNSA, assessing the risks and benefits of regulating transactions involving types of human ‘omic data other than human genomic data, such as human proteomic data, human epigenomic data, and human metabolomic data, and recommending the extent to which such transactions should be regulated pursuant to section 2 of this order.”  

The impact’s magnitude is still unclear, as it remains unknown which specific databases will face restrictions and what the assessment results from US agencies will be. However, combined with the recent challenges in renewing the China-US Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement, it suggests the China-US tech decoupling may intensify. In the worst-case scenario, imagine if access to databases like PubMed, UK Biobank, TCGA, and GEO is lost, China’s life science research would be severely impacted.

Thus, the biomedical field now confronts similar issues as the semiconductor and AI industries. Given these circumstances, China can only increase the investment in building its own databases, even if it demands a tremendous amount of funding, manpower, resources, and time. Databases like the UK Biobank took nearly 20 years to gradually expand to their current scale, and many Chinese teams have published papers in top journals relying on data from there.

On a positive note, this could serve as an opportunity to promote the construction of China’s own biological databases. After all, the country has a vast population of 1.4 billion people, providing a massive trove of biological data. In the biomedical field, it possess an enormous amount of clinical data, providing solid data support for industry development. Meanwhile, China boasts a vast number of medical and health institutions, exceeding one million in total, with over 3,000 tertiary hospitals and 1,651 top-tier tertiary hospitals, handling nearly 8 billion diagnoses and treatments annually.

Additionally, China is endowed with rich biological genetic resources. The coexistence of multiple ethnic groups in the country has resulted in diverse human genetic resources and pathological resources that are closely watched globally. It is also home to one of the world’s most advanced gene banks, with the largest collection of biological samples, the most cutting-edge gene information database, and the strongest support for life science research, showcasing China’s leading position in biotechnology.

In terms of animal and plant resources, China is also affluent in biological genetic resources. As one of the countries with the most diverse domesticated animal species, its animal husbandry industry is well-developed with numerous species. Simultaneously, it boasts the world’s largest variety of fruit trees, providing abundant germplasm resources for the fruit industry. Furthermore, China is the origin of important crops such as rice and soybeans, laying a solid foundation for agricultural development.

These factors indicate that China should continue to strengthen the construction of biological databases. Moreover, the existing data centers have significant room for improvement. Previously, we have established the National Genomics Science Data Center and have preliminary cooperation with some European and American databases. Additionally, many universities have also established scattered databases of different categories. However, China’s biological databases lag far behind those of Europe, America, and Japan in terms of infrastructure, data convergence, data management, search alignment, and more. There are also gaps in the authoritativeness, completeness, user-friendliness of the interface, data retrieval convenience, and intelligent association of different data.

Building and improving biological data centers will undoubtedly bring tremendous development opportunities for China’s biomedical industry. Previously, some Chinese institutions estimated that based on the needs of tertiary hospitals across the country, the market for next-generation sequencing alone has already reached a trillion-yuan scale. On the other hand, domestic sequencing equipment manufacturers and service providers represented by BGI, the world’s largest genome research organization and also manufacturer of sequencing equipment, have rapidly emerged, capable of meeting a considerable portion of the market demand.

Moving on to academic publishing, some argue that even if these foreign databases prohibit Chinese researchers from using them, they can still access these databases through other channels. However, the problem is that once these data are used, it becomes uncertain whether the research results can be successfully published in Western academic journals. This situation is more similar to the previous case of banning Chinese universities from using MATLAB, that is, even Chinese researchers can use the software to process their data, they can’t publish these MATLAB data on international journals.

This raises another issue: currently, top academic journals in various fields, including life sciences, are still controlled by Western publishing groups. The discourse power in science and technology is still held by them, and they are willing to leverage this advantage to sanction certain countries. For example, in 2013, the US Congress legislated to prohibit US editors and editorial board members from receiving manuscripts from Iranian authors. As a result, not only did US journals comply with this regulation and refuse submissions from Iran to avoid trouble, but even European publishing groups directly rejected manuscripts from Iran.

For such a strategic market as China, the situation might be different. However, Chinese science community is not without prior preparation. More than a decade ago, Chinese scientific publishing institutions and universities began collaborating with Western publishing groups to launch cooperative journals, aiming to create locally-based journals with international influence by leveraging the power of publishing giants. In these collaborations, the assistance provided by Western publishers included introducing advanced management models, inviting international academic authorities as editors-in-chief, and so on. In fact, these aspects do not necessarily require reliance on these publishing giants.

For a new journal, fundamentally improving its quality depends on the influence of its editor-in-chief in the field, which directly affects the caliber of the invited editorial board members and the quality of the initial submissions. These factors determine the journal’s reputation and subsequent impact factor. Does China have suitable candidates for editor-in-chief? To have international influence, it ultimately comes down to scholarly prowess. According to the 2023 global highly cited researchers ranking released by Clarivate, China has 124 highly cited researchers in the field of life sciences, and these scholars generally have an esteemed international reputation. Although not every highly cited researcher may be able or willing to lead a newly established journal, at least there is a substantial talent pool in this regard.

Another aspect of the problem might be trickier. For academic journals, the greater value provided by international publishers lies in their brand endorsement, publishing platforms, and sales channels. For instance, cooperative journals can be included in Elsevier’s ScienceDirect database, reaching the global academic community and generating profits through bundled sales with other journals in the database. In this respect, if depart from Western giants, we can only hope for the rise of domestic journal databases and their gradual expansion of overseas influence. In any case, the road ahead is still long and arduous.

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Linwen
Editor-in-Chief, The China Academy
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