Biotech leaders rally behind Chinese scientists in US, calls for 'measured' policies in wake of purges
A slate of biotech executives, venture capitalists and academic researchers have lent their voices to Chinese scientists working in the US biomedical field, amplifying concerns that recent sanctions could “create a climate of fear and uncertainty.”
The letter — drafted by Steven Holtzman, Ron Cohen, Jeremy Levin and John Maraganore and signed by well over 100 industry figures — cautions against vilifying or excluding an ethnic group at the expense of the universal effort to fight disease. Levin currently chairs BIO, while Cohen and Maraganore are past heads of the trade group.
High-profile terminations of three Asian researchers at MD Anderson in April first jolted biotech leaders toward a realization that their industry is not immune from national vigilance about overseas influence. Subsequent controversy at Emory involving two prominent neuroscientists of Chinese origin further fuelled worries that researchers were being punished for conducting trans-Pacific collaborative work that they were previously encouraged to do.
Signaling a tough crackdown against academic espionage, the Department of Justice has indicted a University of Kansas professor of federal fraud. Feng “Franklin” Tao, who works on sustainable technology, was accused of hiding his employment with a Chinese university while conducting government-funded research in the US.
In their letter, Holtzman, Cohen, Levin and Maraganore (CEOs of Decibel, Acorda, Ovid and Alnylam, respectively) emphasized that they are for actions against foreign espionage and IP theft.
But actions must not evolve into broad limitations on collaborations between Chinese and American scientists, as it would deter Chinese scientists from staying in the US or even coming in the first place and thus be “deleterious to our national interests.”
Echoing opinions already published by the editors of Nature, Nature Biotechnology and former NIH director (and ex-Sanofi R&D chief) Elias Zerhouni, they added:
(We) advocate for measured policies that will both protect U.S. intellectual property and continue to foster the diversity and collaboration that fuel our ability to advance science and cure disease. At a minimum, universities must effectively communicate and consistently apply their rules governing scientific collaborations and IP obligations, and they, as well as government agencies, must clearly justify their actions when they accuse scientists of malfeasance or seek to dismiss them from their positions.
Last month, Zerhouni pointed out in his op-ed that US policymakers had advocated for scientific exchanges with China for years and institutions had tacitly supported their researchers’ involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Program.
“The ‘rules,’ now presented and enforced as severe violations of U.S. ethics and intellectual property regulations, were not rigorously implemented by officials at many U.S. institutions,” he wrote. “The consternation, sense of targeted discrimination, and fear in the Chinese-American scientific community are thus understandable.”
While a recent survey of Endpoints readers suggests a lack of consensus on the threat that Chinese-American scientific community faces, key players are apparently eager to speak up before the brain drain happens in earnest.
Check out the full list of signatories here.