U.S. Markets open in 5 hrs 24 mins

Peer pressure: 60 science groups call for end to Washington's crackdown on foreign-born researchers

Mark Magnier

Several dozen prestigious scientific organisations have joined forces in urging the Trump administration to stop impeding foreign-born scientists and undermining global collaboration vital to US and international innovation.

In a letter to top science policy officials, 60 eminent groups " including such powerhouses as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Federation of American Scientists " called for a better balance between national security concerns and scientific inquiry. Collectively, the groups represent hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers and educators worldwide.

"While we must be vigilant to safeguard research, we must also ensure that the US remains a desirable and welcoming destination for researchers from around the world," the three-page letter said. "Finding the appropriate balance between our nation's security and an open, collaborative scientific environment requires focus and due diligence."

The Trump administration has ramped up pressure on the scientific community, particularly foreign-born scientists, amid growing fears over China's outsize economic ambitions and espionage activities, with a focus on Beijing's Thousand Talents Programme.

This state-run initiative was launched in 2008 to recruit leading international experts in scientific research, innovation and entrepreneurship; Beijing has reportedly used it to gain prepublication access to sensitive research and attract top teaching and research talent to China.

Scientists say that national security abuses need to be addressed and plugged. But impeding the free flow of information, particularly involving basic science, risks undercutting the very economic and strategic objectives that Washington hopes to achieve to stay ahead of China, they add.

"We have to patch this," said Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists, in an interview. "But we also have to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water."

A National Geographic analysis found that more than 30 per cent of US-based Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and 35 per cent in physics between 1901 and 2016 were foreign-born. A 2017 study in Nature based on an analysis of 14 million scientific papers found that globally engaged scientists enjoyed the greatest success and impact.

"Limiting the circulation of scholars will damage the entire scientific system," the paper said.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins is one of the Trump administration officials to have received the letter from the science organisations. Photo: Jabin Botsford/ Washington Post alt=National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins is one of the Trump administration officials to have received the letter from the science organisations. Photo: Jabin Botsford/ Washington Post

The September 4 letter is addressed to five administration science officials, including Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. The officials did not immediately comment.

The wording, which involved extensive negotiation given the large number of groups and varied interests, does not mention China by name. But "it's about China," Nouri, a molecular biologist by training, acknowledged.

"When you get a briefing from the administration about their concerns, they tell you it's China and the Thousand Talents Programme."

Scientists decided to voice their concerns now, they say, given the growing unease across wide swathes of their community that foreign-born colleagues are increasingly subject to racial profiling; financing and visa restrictions; unjustified suspicion; and questionable indictments out of proportion to the threat.

Glenn Ruskin, vice-president at the 157,000-member American Chemical Society, said his group signed the letter in line with its long-standing belief in the freedom of international exchange and quest for a "balanced approach that enables continued scientific collaborations while protecting our economy and national security".

Signatories also said they hoped the letter would spur US legal, security and scientific agencies to consult with, and better incorporate, their concerns when developing policy. "That's not too much to ask," said Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international relations at AAAS, which represents 262 societies and academies reaching more than 10 million individuals.

In May, the administration created the National Science and Technology Council Joint Committee on Research Environments to coordinate scientific research among various government agencies. But critics fear only non-scientists could end up writing science policy.

The academic chill felt in particular by scientists and engineers of Chinese descent emanates from the top, scientific associations say. Last year, US President Donald Trump told guests at a private dinner that almost every Chinese student "that comes over to this country is a spy," Politico reported.

In Congressional hearings, FBI Director Christopher Wray has warned that China's use of professors, scientists and students to steal intelligence is a national security risk "in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country."

Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, speaking at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on July 23. Wray said that China is the biggest counter-intelligence threat to the US. Photo: Bloomberg alt=Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, speaking at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on July 23. Wray said that China is the biggest counter-intelligence threat to the US. Photo: Bloomberg

And NIH in a letter to 10,000 grantees last year warned of "inappropriate influence" by foreign entities, encouraging scientists to "reach out to an FBI office to schedule a briefing".

But some say the threat from Beijing is if anything underappreciated, including Beijing's controversial talent programme.

"The Thousand Talents is meant to use the promise of personal gain and prestige to help the [Chinese Communist Party] obtain the technology and talent it requires," said Robert Spalding, a former brigadier general and National Security Council official in the Trump administration who is now a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Hudson Institute.

"Helping the CCP in its mission to restore China to its 'rightful' place in the world is an obligation for all Han Chinese, whether they be citizens of China or not," Spalding added.

Some members of the US scientific community have compared the current environment to the 1950s Red Scare period, when many scientists saw their careers ruined by ill-founded charges of Communist ties led by then-Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Others say the earlier chill was far deeper, more damaging to careers, involved a very different FBI, didn't focused on a single ethic group and was arguably more justified given leaks involving atomic bomb secrets, although they acknowledge that both crackdowns have seen their share of collateral damage.

"McCarthyism was a much broader phenomenon and much more widespread than any analogous environment today," said Steven Aftergood, head of a Federation of American Scientists project monitoring government secrecy. "But there is concern that suspicion of innocent individuals is becoming more common."

The letter this month is the latest of several efforts to push back against a US security establishment critics see as overzealous. In August, 150 prominent leaders in biomedical research and drug development published a letter arguing that recent government restrictions threatened US biomedical leadership. This followed a statement earlier in the month signed by 20 higher education, and public advocacy organisations condemning "racial profiling" of Chinese students and scholars over spying fears.

And late last month, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger criticised the security establishment's threats to academic freedom, especially those directed at ethnic Chinese, in a Washington Post opinion piece headlined "No, I won't start spying on my foreign-born students".

"Attracting " and welcoming " the brightest minds in the world, regardless of nationality or country of origin, is what we're all about," he wrote, adding that if anything, the US should significantly ease green-card requirement for foreign-born graduates.

"What the FBI apparently considers our great vulnerability is, in my view, our greatest strength," he added.

For more insights into China tech, join our Facebook group, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.