No clear answers: Yes, recent actions against Chinese American scientists do pose a threat — but maybe those official concerns about espionage are valid too
Earlier this week we asked our readers to chime in on a conversation inspired by former NIH director and Sanofi R&D chief Elias Zerhouni, who was concerned that recent purges of Chinese American scientists at top biomedical institutions could spell trouble for the scientific community. While grounded in national security reasons, he argues, the US risks losing valuable talent and collaborations if it doesn’t handle the situation properly.
The results to our snap poll, which gathered 220 responses, reflects a lack of consensus on the three key questions: How serious is the problem of academic espionage? In trying to fix that issue, are we hurting Chinese American scientists? And what, if anything, should be done about it?
More respondents believe that worries about academic espionage are at least “somewhat” well-founded, constituting almost 60%. On the other side, 30% say “not really” or “absolutely not,” with 10% standing in the middle.
“Majority of academic findings are of no value,” one reader comments.
Another raised the concern that academics don’t always know where the line is between friendly sharing of information and IP theft:
Institutions don’t always train their faculty and staff on acceptable/unacceptable collaboration policies, and there’s a fast-and-loose culture in academia on many topics (data reproducibility, HR, lab safety, IP) that goes beyond so-called academic espionage.
But even for those concerned with some level of espionage, there is a divide as to whether it’s a systemic effort coming specifically from China or bad actors that are bound to pop up, regardless of nationality.
A slight majority agrees that the dismissals at MD Anderson and Emory threaten the entire Chinese American scientific community in the US — in particular, the biomedical research field, not least because it shapes the public discourse about scientists with roots in China.
Combine the current administration’s anti-immigrant stance with these recent events and even American born Chinese scientists like me feel threatened. It adds to a climate of fear – who’s looking over our shoulders and misinterpreting our actions?
Those who hold the opposite view, though, say isolated cases — in which individuals were allegedly punished for sharing confidential information and violating conflict of interest policies — don’t make a conspiracy against an entire ethnic group.
Along the same lines, while 60% of respondents say they share an urgency to address the fears of Chinese American scientists, 20% do not and the rest are either neutral or haven’t formed an opinion.
Many in support worry about a reverse brain drain, especially as they have had a positive experience working with Chinese-born colleagues: “In the absence of positive information, individuals will make there own decisions, and well-funded Chinese companies are pushing hard for talent already.”
Others maintain the problem is overblown.
“It should be clear to all that there is nothing to be concerned about if scientists are not participating in questionable partnerships with foreign governmental agencies or companies, etc. It seems crazy to suggest that scientists who work within the normal confines of academia or industry would be at risk without additional action.”
What about Zerhouni’s proposal to set up a blue-ribbon committee to draft a new set of clearly defined rules to govern foreign scientific engagement?
The idea is clearly still in its infancy, with more than half responding “neutral” or “no opinion” and some professing lack of understanding as to what that entails. Support and disagreement are split right down the middle.
Going back to the expulsions that triggered the conversation, a respondent suggests the solution will be more information.
The best way forward is for the government to spell out exactly what the evidence against these individuals was. If it is convincing to scientists that their intentions really were to hurt American science and benefit Chinese, the actions will be accepted and will serve as a warning to others perhaps considering similar adventures. On the other hand, if the evidence is weak or they misinterpreted the intent of the actions of these people, then widespread panic will ensue, with or without a “blue ribbon panel”.
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