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”.

So­cial im­age: Shut­ter­stock

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Pascal Soriot, AP

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Adeno-associated virus-1 illustration; the use of AAVs resurrected the gene therapy field, but companies are now testing the limits of a 20-year-old technology (File photo, Shutterstock)

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Anthony Fauci, NIAID director (AP Images)

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Vir's CMO says he's sur­prised that a low dose of their he­pati­tis B drug ap­pears promis­ing in ear­ly slice of da­ta — shares soar

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