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Research Integrity

Fear and confusion continue over research interactions with China

Advocacy groups have asked the Biden administration to rethink China Initiative prosecutions and allow public input into new rules on international collaborations

by Andrea Widener
May 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 17


Merrick Garland sitting at a desk talking into a microphone and gesturing with his hands.
Credit: Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Newscom
At his confirmation hearing in February, Merrick Garland, now attorney general, said he would review the Department of Justice's China Initiative.

Even before the pandemic, many Asian scientists came to Roger Wakimoto, vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Los Angeles, with concerns that they were being discriminated against.

The scientists felt that the US federal government was targeting them and questioning their loyalty to the US, Wakimoto says. The scientists were “using two words: racial profiling,” he says. While the government has denied targeting Asian scientists, “it’s really hard to convince the faculty of that based on how things have been playing out.”

In November 2018, Jeff Sessions, then attorney general, announced the creation of the China Initiative, which targeted “economic espionage” from China.

“This was highly unusual, if not unprecedented, to have a Department of Justice initiative that was framed around a country,” says Margaret K. Lewis, a law professor and China scholar at Seton Hall University. There isn’t an equivalent initiative for Russia, for example, or other countries that are known to have tried to steal US technology.

Focusing on one country “does increase a sense of suspicion, and that concerns me,” she says.

As part of the initiative, the Department of Justice has lumped together vastly different types of prosecutions, Lewis says. A few cases involve attempts to steal trade secrets. But many others aren’t related to espionage at all.

For academics charged under the China Initiative, many of the charges instead center on failing to report payments from Chinese institutions or pay taxes on them, as well as not disclosing those relationships. Chemists facing such charges include University of Kansas chemical engineering professor Feng “Franklin” Tao and Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber.

“The goal of the China Initiative is to promote a pro-innovation environment in the United States and to make it so that intellectual property is encouraged” and protected, Lewis says. But instead she worries it might be having the opposite effect. “The more that scientists are concerned that they might be subject to enhanced scrutiny, the more that can not only deter negative behaviors but also positive cooperation,” she says.

The ground is shifting very rapidly underneath us. The guidelines we get are constantly changing and updating.
Roger Wakimoto, vice chancellor for research, University of California, Los Angeles

Many people have linked the China Initiative to China’s Thousand Talents Plan. But that program is only one of more than 200 that China runs to keep talented Chinese citizens in China, attract Chinese scholars from abroad, and recruit Western scientists who are not of Chinese descent to work in China, says Emily Weinstein, who studies Chinese talent programs at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

China is likely asking some participants in these programs to hide their affiliations from the US, Weinstein says. At the same time, many programs ask participants to be in China only part-time so they could work at a US university and still have their affiliation in China.

While China is trying to take advantage of the US’s open academic environment to improve its own access to science and technology, Weinstein says that most academics in China and in the US are just trying to do the best research, not help China.

“Part of the issue that we’re seeing here is a lack of understanding on both sides,” Weinstein says. “Law enforcement does not understand what is considered a normal research practice in academia, open research collaboration, and some of the funding disclosure issues. But academia does not understand why law enforcement is so concerned about this.”

In the months since the US presidential election, several groups have asked the Biden administration and the Justice Department to reexamine the China Initiative overall, as well as the prosecution of individual cases, to see whether anti-Asian bias played a role. So far that hasn’t happened, although Attorney General Merrick Garland has been in office just since March.

Meanwhile, confusion about what scientists can and can’t do and what they must disclose has been amplified by a multitude of new directives. On Donald J. Trump’s last day in office, he issued recommendations for reporting international collaborations and funding. Joe Biden allowed those rules to go into effect instead of pausing them for review, as the administration did for other policies. Then there’s guidance from an intergovernmental panel, as well as requirements laid out by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, all of which address rules for reporting foreign contacts and funding.

Universities would like to see all the rules streamlined so every agency asks for the same information, says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities.

Wakimoto agrees. He understands the national security risks of international collaborations, but at the same time, “the ground is shifting very rapidly underneath us. The guidelines we get are constantly changing and updating.” he says. “Sometimes universities are confused because there are some inconsistencies out there.”

In a US Senate hearing in April on efforts to prevent foreign influence, the US Government Accountability Office’s Candice N. Wright said federal agencies need to be clearer with scientists and universities.

“An important first step is to start with fully and clearly defining types of conflicts that may pose a risk,” Wright, acting director for science, technology assessment, and analytics, said at the hearing. “Asking universities to guess what financial or nonfinancial conflicts should be reported is akin to asking them to take a ‘know it when you see it’ approach, and that is not prudent.”

And that’s especially true when so many people are potentially affected. Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health, said at the hearing that the agency has identified over 500 scientists “of concern,” contacted 90 universities about 200 people, and removed 100 “from the NIH ecosystem.”

In addition to advocating for clearer rules, universities want to preserve the scientific openness that has been the hallmark of US science.

The government needs to “balance the security needs, which are real, with making sure that we’re continuing to make science accessible and freely available, not only in our country,” Smith says. The immense speed of research on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines wouldn’t have been possible without that international openness, he points out.

In Biden’s recent 2022 budget proposal, he proposed widespread increases for science. As part of that proposal, he cited China’s rising spending on science and technology.

Unfortunately, whenever we’ve had international tensions, there has been a backlash against the Asian American community.
John Yang, executive director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC

Smith took that increase in spending as a good sign—that the administration recognizes the US can’t continue to succeed without major investments in research. “There’s a recognition that you have to play offense, not just defense,” he says. “Too often, people think, ‘If we just wall it all in, we will stay ahead,’ ” he says, and that is not the case.

John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC, says he hopes that holding up China as the competition doesn’t mean that Asians in the US become the enemy.

“It is perfectly fair for the American government to call out the Chinese government on the treatment of Uighurs, on free press, plus any number of issues,” Yang says. “But we want our government to do it in a smart way that does not end up putting a target on the backs of Asian Americans here, domestically.”

This isn’t the first time that Asian people in the US have been caught up in broader problems, Yang says. “Unfortunately, whenever we’ve had international tensions, there has been a backlash against the Asian American community.”


This story was updated on May 14, 2021, to correct John Yang's affiliation from executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice to executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC.


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