In a strongly worded letter published in Science today (March 21), a group of Chinese-American scientists voice concern that recent proposals from the National Institutes of Health and FBI actions could lead to unjust targeting of ethnically Chinese scientists. NIH officials say they value the scientific contributions of scientists of all nationalities and share concerns of possible stigmatization, but also have a duty to identify cases where foreign researchers have acted against the interests of the US.
“The letter on behalf of Chinese scientists raises valid and important issues that have major implications, not only for the Chinese scientists directly affected, but also for the US’s standing as a global leader of scientific knowledge production and the US universities where they work,” Jenny Lee, an educational policy and practice researcher at the University of Arizona who did not contribute to the letter, writes in an email to The Scientist.
The escalating trade war between the US and China and associated anti-Chinese rhetoric is in part driven by the US government’s objection to thefts of trade technologies and intellectual property by Chinese nationals and businesses. Such economic espionage, some fear, is a threat to US businesses and the country’s global power. While the authors of today’s letter do not dispute that such crimes have occurred nor the need to prevent them, they argue that the subsequent actions and words of certain US government agencies have led to an anti-Chinese climate, particularly affecting students and researchers, which in itself threatens the US scientific endeavor—the very origin of many ideas and technologies that become intellectual property.
This circular, secondary threat to science may even be worse than the initial thefts, says biologist Alice Huang of Caltech who did not write the letter. “We can always compete with and improve on what has been stolen,” she writes in an email to The Scientist. “Racial profiling, on the other hand, will deter many others from China as well as from other non-white racial groups from making the USA their home and we will lose out on an important source of innovation that feeds our success in research. The long-term price we pay for having a chilly research environment far exceeds that of the few ideas stolen from us.”
The long-term price we pay for having a chilly research environment far exceeds that of the few ideas stolen from us.—Alice Huang, Caltech
The letter, written by members of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America (SCBA), the Chinese American Hematologist and Oncologist Network (CAHON), and the Chinese Biological Investigators Society (CBIS), points to recent comments by FBI director Christopher Wray and an NIH report, which “single out students and scholars of Chinese descent working in the United States as threats to U.S. national interests.”
While the NIH report concerns foreign influences generally, it does highlight China’s Thousand Talents Plan—a state-sponsored program for recruiting and sponsoring skilled scientists, a key qualification for which is “access to intellectual property (IP).” The report says that “a number of the violations NIH and recipient organizations have uncovered were made by members of such programs.”
Michael Drake, president of the Ohio State University and a member of the advisory committee that developed the NIH report, tells The Scientist, “I heard their concerns [about racial profiling] and I can’t say they aren’t true in places that I don’t know. What I can say is that the intention of the work that we did was to provide reasonable guidelines [for how to identify and prevent violations]. . . . The committee worked diligently to weigh both sides of the issue. On the one side we actively support free inquiry and we’re intimately aware of the extraordinary value that has come from international collaborations. . . . On the other side, of course, there have been isolated incidents where bad actors have violated our own rules, or our codes of conduct, and sometimes even the law, and we need to make sure that we are appropriately protective of our enterprise.”
FBI investigations into such violations, or potential violations, have succeeded in identifying wrongdoers. However, there have also been examples where Chinese-American scientists were wrongfully accused of espionage. “They haul them in with unfounded accusations and then they finally had to let them go,” says Huang. “These people have had their lives and their families just destroyed,” she says, adding that these examples “remind us that our reputations could be destroyed at any minute for no good reason.”
Serious injustices aside, there is also the worry of more insidious and permeating anti-Chinese sentiment in the US. “I do think that the discussions around American competition with China . . . definitely has created a campus environment challenge for those members of our campus community who are of Chinese ethnicity,” says Randy Katz, vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Berkeley who has received reports of jokes and negative comments aimed at colleagues of Chinese descent.
“I’m very concerned about these climate issues,” he continues. “I think there is a long-term threat to attracting the world’s best talent to the United States if we do not have a welcoming and supportive environment for that. There are other countries in the world that are presenting themselves as a happier place for the world’s best scientific talent to study and to locate.”
Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and other top NIH officials have written a response to the letter, also published today in Science. In it, they say that “certain scientists, including some with links to foreign institutions and/or governments, have violated the honor-based systems and practices of the American research enterprise.” But also that “the vast majority of Chinese scientists working in America are honorable, conscientious, and dedicated to the cause of expanding knowledge for the betterment of humankind.”
In a phone call with The Scientist, Collins reiterates these sentiments. “The American biomedical research progress that has happened over the past many decades would simply not have been possible at the level that we now see without participation by these remarkably talented people who come to our shores from other countries and do wonderful work,” he says. “This notion that they might be under a cloud of suspicion, or even, as the three Chinese societies have suggested, be subject to racial profiling, that is anathema to everything that we stand for in this country.”
“We at NIH are very much in favor of open science and having people make data available even before publication,” he continues, “but at the same time we recognize that there are instances where there is intellectual property involved and to have that diverted outside of the country damages our economic opportunities.”
The Scientist reached out to the FBI regarding Christopher Wray’s comments on the threats posed by Chinese academics, but it had not responded by the time this article was published.
S. Lu et al., “Racial profiling harms science,” Science, doi:10.1126/science.aaw6854, 2019.
F.S. Collins et al., “NIH shares concern about possible stigmatization of foreign scientists,” Science, doi:10.1126/science.aaw8810, 2019.