US-China Tensions Leave Some Researchers on Edge
US-China Tensions Leave Some Researchers on Edge

US-China Tensions Leave Some Researchers on Edge

Changing policy has left academics uncertain about what is legal for foreign involvement in research, and increased hostility and bureaucracy have led students and scholars to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Jun 7, 2019
Diana Kwon

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As the political tensions between China and the US rise, a spotlight has fallen on scientists.  

A crackdown by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on foreign influence in federally funded research has led to a number of academics getting fired from universities, with more investigations ongoing. And recent visa restrictions for Chinese students and scholars have slowed scientists coming to the US.

For Chinese-American scholars, these developments have raised concerns that they might be caught in the crossfire. Members of the broader scientific community are also worried that escalating tensions might hurt collaborations or the influx of talent from overseas. 

In the current political climate, “we’re seeing discrimination targeted specifically at our Chinese students and scholars,” says Jenny Lee, a professor of educational policy and practice at the University of Arizona. 

“There’s a chilling effect,” says Frank Wu, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and president of the Committee of 100, a group of Chinese Americans dedicated to advancing US-China relations. “I get calls and emails every week from Chinese immigrants who are deeply concerned about their careers, their lives, and all of these issues.” 

Scientists unaware of what’s illegal

Last year, the NIH sent notices to more than 10,000 academic institutions warning about threats from foreign entitles to the biomedical research in the US. This was followed by a subsequent wave of letters to a smaller number of universities requesting information about specific faculty members with potential links to foreign governments. 

Following these letters, in April, three scientists left the MD Anderson Cancer Center after the institution flagged them for undisclosed connections to China. A few weeks later, Emory University fired a pair of Chinese-American geneticists for failing to report funding from Chinese sources. One of the terminated researchers, Li Xiao-Jiang, is disputing the charges against him and Li Shihua, his wife. This week, an NIH official told lawmakers that 16 investigations are underway regarding undisclosed involvement by foreign governments on grant applications.

See “NIH Raises Concerns About Foreign Influence in Biomedical Research

One of the challenges academics currently face is that some of the rules regarding what kinds of activities are allowed have changed, Wu says. This January, for example, the US Department of Energy released a memo indicating that the scientists funded by the agency were banned from taking part in foreign talent–recruitment initiatives such as the Thousand Talents program, which aims to bring top researchers—primarily those of Chinese descent—back to China. Thousand Talents has also been flagged in a recent NIH report noting that a number of violations to its policies were made by the program’s recruits. 

It was obvious that they had no idea what was going on and didn’t know how to protect themselves.

—Da Hsuan Feng, former university administrator

“Even a year ago, participation in these talent programs was okay—now, it makes you a suspect,” Wu says. “Part of what’s happened is researchers just haven’t caught up.” 

Another issue, according to Steven Pei, an engineer at the University of Houston, is that academic institutions have done a poor job of helping researchers comply with existing rules, such as those around international collaborations and foreign funding, which once received little attention.

For several years, the Committee of 100 has helped organize workshops across the US to advise scholars of Chinese descent on how to deal with the government’s heightened scrutiny of their community for potential spies. Da Hsuan Feng, a retired physicist who has worked as the vice president of research at the University of Texas at Dallas and in senior administration at universities in Taiwan and Macau, participated in one such workshop that Pei helped organize, which included academics, legal experts, and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, last fall. According to Feng, it was clear that many academics who attended the event had much to learn about what activities could put them at risk at being accused of espionage. 

“We invited many faculty [members] in the Houston area to participate,” he tells The Scientist. “From the questions they asked, it was obvious that they had no idea what was going on and didn’t know how to protect themselves.” 

Forums like this should be available for researchers at all academic institutions in the US, Feng says. “I think every university that has NIH funding should organize such a conference for the faculty and the administrators so they know how to follow the proper [procedures].” 

While the leadership at some research institutions has placed the blame for breaking rules solely on researchers, others have taken a different approach, Pei writes in an email to The Scientist, pointing to the outcome of recent investigations at Baylor College Medicine. In April, Science reported that when Baylor identified three faculty members who had not properly reported their joint appointments at Chinese universities or funding from China, it did not discipline the academics, but helped them correct the record instead.

Students and scholars seek opportunities elsewhere

According to data from the Institute of International Education (IEE), China has been the most common place of origin for international students for the last six years. During the 2017 to 2018 academic year, for example, Chinese students made up approximately 33 percent of the total number of scholars from abroad. 

But the federal government has been putting increased restrictions on visas for Chinese scholars. A year ago, the US State Department limited visas for students in fields such as robotics and high-tech manufacturing to one year rather than five years. Just last month, congressional Republicans introduced a bill that, if enacted into law, would prohibit individuals employed or funded by the Chinese military from obtaining student or research visas. 

I have zero doubt that there are real cases of espionage and theft of corporate secrets and intellectual property, [but] there should be concern about the rate of false positives.

—Frank Wu, University of California, Hastings College of the Law


Most recently, this Monday (June 3), the Chinese government issued a warning to students about potential difficulties they might face while applying for visas to study in the US. “For some time, some of the visas for Chinese students studying in the United States have been restricted,” Xu Mei, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Education, said at a press conference. “The visa review period has been extended, the validity period has been shortened, and the refusal rate has increased.

While it’s unclear whether recent events will deter Chinese students from coming to American universities, the IEE found that new enrollments from all countries dropped by 6.6 percent in the most recent academic year. According to a recent analysis from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, some of the top reasons for this decline included visa delays and denials, the current social and political environment, and an unwelcoming climate. “[The US is] going to be experiencing some major consequences of this [unwelcoming] attitude, especially when it comes to universities and their ability to attract top talent from abroad, particularly from China,” Lee says.

Bureaucratic hurdles have led some Chinese scholars to start seeking opportunities outside of the US. For example, Feng says that several of his colleagues in China, among them physicists and engineers, who have faced difficulties obtaining visas to go to the US have opted to instead attend academic conferences in other places, such as Europe. “Some people already regard [coming to the US] as a hassle,” he adds.  

Jay Siegel, dean of Tianjin University’s School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology in China, says that while he hasn’t noticed a major drop in the number of people from his institution going to the US for work, Chinese academics are aware of the increased bureaucracy involved in obtaining visas and are applying earlier to avoid delays. And, he says, some scholars have begun considering opportunities in other parts of the world, such as in Europe or in other Asian countries. The current situation has “caused people to say, ‘Do we want the hassle? Let’s look at what else is out there,’” Siegel tells The Scientist. “And lo and behold, they’re finding stuff.” 

See “Chinese-American Scientists Fear Racial Profiling

Some scientists are worried that the continued political tensions between China and the US might affect scientific partnerships between the two countries. 

According to Alice Huang, a biologist at Caltech and vice president of the 80-20 Educational Foundation, an organization aimed at promoting equal opportunities and justice for Asian Pacific Americans, recent developments have put a chill on collaborations for researchers based in the US, especially those of Chinese descent. “When you go to a meeting and if the meeting is in China and you’re talking to Chinese scientists there . . . people are certainly worried about how [new collaborations] will be viewed from the US,” Huang says.

Whether there has been any change in Chinese scientists’ willingness to engage in research projects with scientists the US is not yet clear. The number of new collaborations “is definitely not going up, but whether it’s statistically significantly going down—it’s hard to say,” Siegel says.

Jeffrey Lehman, the vice chancellor at NYU Shanghai, a joint Sino-US research institution based in China, says that it’s too early to say what the long-term effect might be. “There’s certainly heightened anxiety here,” he adds. “I think there is a concern that people will not be able to work together as easily face-to-face, that they’ll have to [collaborate] digitally—and that would be unfortunate, especially if lab work is involved.”

There’s a misconception that the Chinese are relying on the US to publish or to engage in research projects, according to Lee. She’s currently investigating the collaboration patterns between the US and China and preliminary findings show that in the past five years, the National Natural Science Foundation of China has funded five times more scientific papers than the National Science Foundation in the US. Because of China’s fast-growing commitment and investments in research and development, if the relationship between the two countries continues to deteriorate, “ultimately, I believe that the US has more to lose,” Lee says.

Hostility creates anxiety and uncertainty for researchers

This March, three groups—the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America, the Chinese American Hematologist and Oncologist Network, and the Chinese Biological Investigators Society, wrote a letter in Science voicing concerns about US policies that target scholars of Chinese descent. 

The letter specifically cited worries about the effect of recent actions by the NIH in its attempt to crack down on illicit foreign influence. It also noted that there have been several cases of Chinese-American scientists who were wrongfully accused of espionage. In 2015, for example, the US Justice Department dropped charges of spying against two Chinese-American scientists, National Weather Service hydrologist Sherry Chen and Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi. Xi has filed a lawsuit against the federal government for violating his rights.

“I have zero doubt that there are real cases of espionage and theft of corporate secrets and intellectual property,” says Wu. But “there should be concern about the rate of false positives,” because they aren’t random, he adds. “They add up to a pattern that suggests . . .  people of Asian descent, specifically Chinese descent, are wildly over-represented.”

In an emailed statement to The Scientist, the NIH states that not all individuals currently under review by the agency are of Chinese ethnicity and that the NIH is “committed to ensuring objectivity in its reviews.” Following the Science letter in March, NIH director Francis Collins told The Scientist, “We at NIH are very much in favor of open science and having people make data available even before publication . . . 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 increased scrutiny of academics with ties to China has led some universities, including Yale University, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan, to make public statements affirming their support for international scholars at their campuses.

“It’s nice to hear the administration coming out and supporting their faculty,” says Huang. “It does allay some of the fears among the faculty about their families and their livelihoods.”

Clarification (June 10): We clarified in the 8th paragraph that the Thousand Talents program targets Chinese researchers primarily but not exclusively.