From Collaborator to Threat: Imaginaries of China in U.S. Science Policymaking

Larry Au, The City College of New York

In Vannevar Bush’s formative report, Science, The Endless Frontier, he argues that the success of the U.S. scientific enterprise is contingent on the ability of U.S. scientific institutions to engage with the scientific talent and knowledge both at home and abroad, with the federal government acting in “promoting the international flow of scientific information”. But as historians of Cold War science have pointed out, the threat of the foreign Other—in that period, the U.S.S.R.—has shaped the direction of scientific research and placed limits on scientific openness on the basis of national security. Borrowing from Pickersgill’s (2021) distinction between collaborative, comparator, and competitive sociotechnical imaginaries of foreign Others in science policymaking, I analyze discursive framings of China in U.S. science policymaking. This paper draws on proceedings from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology from 2003 to 2021 to chart the changing imaginaries of China. Based on a computational text analysis of over 800 meeting transcripts during this time period, I first calculated the proportion of country name mentions in each legislative session. During most of this time period, China was the most mentioned country, and mentions of China grew from 10% of all country name mentions during the 108th Congress (2003-2005) to 40% during the 116th Congress (2019-2021). Then, through a qualitative analysis of the over 4,000 mentions of China, I show how earlier mentions of China viewed the country as a potential collaborator, and later mentions of China began to portray the country as a competitor, and eventually a threat to U.S. national security interests.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 27. Expertise and the U.S. State