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A new era of academic protectionism has dawned - and it has downsides for us all

6 min read

Reed Smoot was one of the more controversial politicians in American history.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1862, Smoot was a prominent Mormon and leading figure in the Church of Latter Day Saints. When Smoot was elected to the US Senate in 1903 it emerged that his father had six wives and 27 children, triggering a four-year investigation into his support for polygamy.

But Smoot is perhaps best-known as co-sponsor of one of the most notorious pieces of legislation to pass through the US Senate. The Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 implemented protectionist trade policies and raised US tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods. The move is widely accepted to have led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thomas Lamont, the chief executive of JP Morgan, criticized the law as having “intensified nationalism all over the world” before the Second World War.

Nearly a century on, as the world enters another concerning era of protectionist policies, it is worth recalling lessons from history.

Barriers to free trade always limit consumers’ access to goods, creating market distortions and economic inefficiency. But in the hyper-globalised 21st century, there are new downsides to consider: blocks on the free movement of talents, of knowledge, of information, of technologies. Such restrictions are detrimental for the global economy - and often even for local economies where they are introduced.

I’m particularly concerned about the free distribution of knowledge. Can an individual privatize a physical law? Isn’t it a responsibility of a scientist to transmit Maxwell equations, the foundation of classical electromagnetism, to the rest of humanity? Once a new quantum law is discovered, should one localize or delocalize the knowledge? In my view, such knowledge about our world cannot be privatized. Knowledge belongs to humanity, just like the air we breathe, the oceans we sail, and the sunshine we enjoy. It is a universal right. Depriving people from knowledge is just as bad as depriving people from freedoms.

The developments in recent years amount to an economic revolution: a paradigm shift from a production economy to a knowledge economy. For the first time in history most global companies in the top five by market capitalization are based on knowledge or services, surpassing the majority of oil companies. Aramco, the Saudi oil giant, is now the outlier and, actually, ranks so high in part because of its strong research base. Suddenly, we have realised that the most valuable resource of any kind is not oil or land – it is talent.

The scientific and technological success of such countries as USA, UK, The Netherlands, Germany, Israel, and others is in large part due to the attraction of talent (although the factors why talents are attracted to that, or another country, varies). They all offer quality, affordable education, access to capital, language, and a relative ease of assimilation. (I’m sure the readers can pin different reasons to different countries themselves.) The result is always the same: the more talent you attract, the faster your economy will grow. By no means am I trying to say that it is only the immigrants who contribute to innovation. Absolutely not! But talents are equally distributed across the globe and there is only so far that you can progress with the local talents. Identifying and sourcing talents from overseas is the rule of the game in how to cheat the system.

Over the years we became so acquainted to the status quo, with constant flows of students and professionals, that we started to forget about the existence of the rules. But small changes which unbalanced those flows had tremendous effects. In late 1990s and early 2000s China in particular started to invest strongly into science which attracted lots of top academics to its shores. Ways to attract are multiple: investments in equipment, the creation of special institutions designed by the leading scientists, offering special salaries for top talents, and preferential policies for the spin-off companies born out of their discoveries.

Knowledge belongs to humanity, just like the air we breathe, the oceans we sail, and the sunshine we enjoy.

Unfortunately, this process coincided with the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the west. Several legislative initiatives in US, UK and other countries made it difficult for many categories of students and scientists to travel or settle in those countries. The intention was very clear – to limit the outflux of sensitive technologies. Did they reach their goal? In the short term, most probably yes. However, in the long term it is very difficult to account for missing out on future discoveries and technologies which would have been created by those influx of talents. The same talent will simply create those technologies somewhere else.

China will suffer, too, however. Restriction of scientific exchange has never benefited anyone. During my scientific career, I was privileged to have active collaborations across the globe. It is very sad to see delicate, painstakingly constructed bridges being ruined, sometimes in a matter of days.

Yet what is the point of whining without suggesting a solution. We scientists must be pragmatic as Johannes Stark used to claim, though obnoxiously twisting the rational on the way. We don’t always have the power to change the world. But we can develop strategies to minimize the detrimental effects.

First, the world’s greatest minds need to come together to devise a reasonable mechanism that enables knowledge transfer across borders. Such an organization, which must be multi-lateral in nature, would help to overcome short-term, national political grandstanding in the interests of wider human progress. Perhaps this could be a topic of conversation at Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s artificial intelligence summit this week?

Distributed education, when students can learn from world-leading academics in the comfort of their own home, might also be a way forward. I’m still on a learning curve myself here: I strongly believe in personal contact when discussing science. Jumping up and writing something on a black board. Calling someone an idiot, or being called an idiot in person, rather than through thousands of miles of optical fibre have far more dramatic effects. Still, the benefits of distributed knowledge, open collaboration, and joint technological development might surpass the inconvenience of trying to find the UNMUTE button every time you want to say something. In particular, this strategy is being pursued by Constructor University in Bremen, Germany, where I am privileged to lead the Scientific Advisory Council. We believe that every talent is precious. We believe that every talent should be supported and preserved. And we believe that only through the abundant transfer of knowledge and technology can humans truly be free.

Sir Konstantin Sergeevich Novoselov is Chairman of the Strategic Advisory Board, Constructor Group and professor at the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials, National University of Singapore. His joint discovery of graphene at the University of Manchester earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

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