It was easy for scientists to denounce racism last March when an attacker sprayed bullets into Asian-owned spas in Atlanta and murdered eight people, mostly Asian American women. However, the scientific community’s response is starkly different when racism is used to justify a pro-science agenda. Just a few months after the scientific community released statements condemning more than a year’s worth of anti-Asian violence tied to COVID-19, that same racial prejudice fueled a landmark science funding bill—the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA), formerly known as the Endless Frontier Act. Underlying the bill’s investments in science and technology is an agenda of countering China’s influence.
We shouldn’t condemn Asian hate crimes and tweet about #StopAsianHate in one breath and then use anti-China xenophobia to support increased science funding in the next. Scapegoating China is politically expedient; it allows policymakers on both sides of the spectrum cover to come to a bipartisan consensus. However, scientists, and particularly those who work at the intersection of science and public policy, must ask themselves: What is the cost?
We shouldn’t condemn Asian hate crimes and tweet about #StopAsianHate in one breath and then use anti-China xenophobia to support increased science funding in the next.
Science, while sometimes hailed as a rare opportunity for bipartisanship in a bitterly divided government, is far from apolitical—and this can be a good thing. During the Cold War, collaborations continued between scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union, facilitating diplomatic cooperation on major issues including Antarctic research, protecting the ozone, and space exploration. We can thank these scientific relationships for helping prevent further degradation of US-Soviet relations, as we look toward tackling existential problems such as COVID-19 and climate change through global cooperation.
The framing of science’s importance through a lens of global competition is counterproductive and deeply harmful. In spite of prevailing rhetoric, the United States does not hold exclusive claim to scientific research excellence; for this reason, it is necessary for researchers to form collaborations and share publicly accessible data on a global scale. Furthermore, in times of crisis, the frame of competition is used to scapegoat minority communities in the US and heighten our country’s deep-rooted systemic racism. For example, during World War II, we incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans. In 1982, amid an economic downturn in Detroit and competition with Japanese automakers, Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man, was beaten to death with minimal legal consequences for his murderers. Just this past year, the US government revoked the visas of more than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers, citing suspicion of espionage.
Our country’s obsession with winning a competition with China has sparked deeply problematic policies such as the Department of Justice’s China Initiative. Since its launch in 2018 with a mission to combat economic espionage, only about 25 percent of cases it initiated through November 2020 fell into this category; the vast majority of charges, mostly against individuals of Chinese descent, were instead for minor or unrelated offenses such as paperwork filing errors. The initiative’s sole and explicit focus on China, which is not the only country actively engaged in stealing US trade secrets, has led to the targeting and profiling of Chinese and Asian American researchers, often with little evidence of actual crimes.
In addition to many cases of wrongful arrest, such as that of Temple University professor Xiaoxing Xi, these policies perpetuate a narrative that Asians and Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners who can’t be trusted, and whose persecution is justified in the name of national security. This has a much broader, chilling effect on Asian American scientists and engineers. Protectionist policies and language that demonize an entire country or region are driving away international students and researchers who instead choose to take their talents to other, more welcoming countries. As a result, the US research enterprise, and the many scientists and engineers who work here, will also suffer.
The USICA was crafted to reimagine the US scientific enterprise and cement our country’s place as a global leader in science and technology. The legislation will likely pass in some form and hopefully will accomplish just that. Unfortunately, its anti-China overtones alongside policies such as the China Initiative are having the opposite effect, and will continue to do so unless we address the xenophobia at the root of the problem.
There are many excellent reasons to support a robust scientific infrastructure and invest in research and development, including combating climate change, curing diseases, and eradicating hunger. “Beating” China—especially at the expense of Asian and Asian American scientists, engineers, and bystanders— should not be the reason we support ambitious science policy.