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How US–China political tensions are affecting science

Government-funded research, conference travel and visas are all touched by the situation.

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US President Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida in 2017.Credit: Jim Watson/Getty

Research is becoming increasingly embroiled in ongoing political tensions between the United States and China.

In the latest twist, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has moved to terminate the employment of three scientists after the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) said that they had committed serious violations of agency rules regarding the confidentiality of peer review, conflicts of interest and the disclosure of foreign ties. The agency also sent letters to MD Anderson, which receives NIH funding, about two other researchers.

The revelations, first published jointly by Science and the Houston Chronicle, are part of a wider NIH crackdown. MD Anderson officials have not released the names of the scientists, but confirmed to Nature that all self-identified as “Asian” on internal documents. Science reported that at least three are ethnically Chinese.

Meanwhile, Chinese scientists planning to attend conferences or meetings in the United States have told Nature that they are experiencing significant delays in obtaining short-term visas. Those affected include star quantum physicist Jian-Wei Pan, who heads China’s world-leading programme in super-secure quantum communication at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei.

Nature investigates the circumstances of the tensions, and the repercussions for scientists and research.

What’s the background?

For several years, the United States has accused China of distorting global trade by offering generous subsidies to its favoured industries and restricting foreign companies’ access to its markets. It also says that Chinese policies are forcing US companies to hand over intellectual property in exchange for access to Chinese markets, and that its government has supported cyberattacks on companies’ tech secrets.

After several rounds of negotiations to resolve these issues failed, US President Donald Trump started a trade war when he put tariffs on 818 Chinese goods. China followed suit with tariffs on 545 US goods. Further meetings between the two countries have so far failed to strike new trading terms.

How did science get sucked in?

Last August, NIH director Francis Collins wrote a letter to the more than 10,000 US institutions that the agency funds, stating that it was concerned that “some foreign entities” were interfering in the funding, research and peer review of NIH-supported projects.

Then, earlier this month, Collins told the Senate Appropriations Committee that investigations at 55 US universities had found some “egregious” breaches of rules governing the agency’s grants — including grant recipients not disclosing foreign government money, or diverting intellectual property from their US institution to other countries, such as China. He warned that universities would announce actions they have taken against foreign scientists caught breaking rules, and he said that some facility members would probably be sacked as a result.

MD Anderson says it received letters from the NIH concerning five of its scientists, and elected to terminate the employment of three after it and the University of Texas system investigated. Two of the researchers chose to resign, and termination is under way for the third. The University of Texas and MD Anderson are still investigating one researcher, and say that terminating the employment of another is not warranted; MD Anderson says it is reviewing compliance procedures with that researcher and their supervisor.

Four of the researchers were accused of improperly sharing confidential information about grant applications, and one of sending at least one grant application containing proprietary information to a scientist in China, according to redacted versions of the letters, which Nature has seen. In three cases, the letters suggest that MD Anderson failed to disclose that the researchers had active and well-supported research programmes in China.

Science and the Houston Chronicle also report that they have identified three further institutes that received letters from the NIH, concerning a total of eight researchers.

What about other agencies?

This February, a memo from the Department of Energy (DOE) reportedly said the agency was banning its employees, contracted scientists and grant recipients from participating in talent-recruitment programmes run by the governments of “sensitive” countries, over fears that participants could share government-funded research.

The memo didn’t specifically mention China, but the country has one of the world’s largest talent-recruitment programmes, the Thousand Talents Plan, which, since 2008, has prompted thousands of Chinese engineers and scientists to return to China, many from the United States. Researchers are given prominent positions and generous funding, and some maintain affiliations at institutions in both countries.

A researcher from the DOE’s Office of Science, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press, told Nature that the department is now improving its security policies for international collaborations in some research fields.

The US Department of Commerce is also updating rules governing technology exports that could complicate security protocols on a range of research projects. Even under existing rules, conflicts frequently arise for researchers — and the students and postdoctoral researchers involved — when they submit projects for security vetting, says Wayne Mowery, an export-compliance officer at Pennsylvania State University in State College and chair of the Association of University Export Control Officers. Sometimes, Mowery has to tell researchers that their Chinese students might not get clearance.

In such cases, some researchers decide to walk away from the project; in others, young researchers are told that they cannot participate for security reasons, Mowery says. That creates a problem for the university, given that 30–40% of its international students are Chinese, he adds, and it can also affect recruiting. “If students are told they cannot do cutting-edge research at US institutions, they are going to go elsewhere,” Mowery says.

What about visas?

The US state department has also imposed new restrictions. Following a policy introduced last June, Chinese graduates wanting to studying robotics, aviation or high-tech manufacturing in the United States can no longer apply for five-year study visas: the policy allows these students to apply only for one-year visas.

Pan Jianwei, a member works at a lab of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, China. Feb. 25, 2016

Quantum physicist Jian-Wei Pan.Credit: Xinhua/Alamy

Is conference travel affected by the rising tensions?

It seems so. Pan told Nature that he has missed two conferences in the United States this year, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, at which he was to have collected the prestigious Newcomb Cleveland Prize for an outstanding paper published in Science, because he was not granted a visa in time. “It is obviously more difficult to get a US visa [now],” says Pan.

He finally received a three-month, single-entry visa last month. In the past, he says, he has obtained multi-entry visas for a year in less than a month. “The difficulty definitely causes obstacles for scientific collaboration between scientists in the US and other countries,” he says.

Any other examples?

Several major scientific conferences in the United States have also reported visa delays for Chinese nationals. Peter Teuben, a computational astronomer at the University of Maryland in College Park who helped to organize the Astronomical Data Analysis Software & Systems conference in College Park last November, says that, out of 24 researchers from China who applied for the conference, only 6 were able to get visas and attend the meeting.

And almost 300 Chinese nationals withdrew or did not show up for the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington DC last December, more than double the number who failed to attend the 2017 meeting. A spokesperson for the union says that visa delays are only one reason that those people did not come to the meeting.

An official at the Chinese embassy in Washington DC, who asked not to be named owing to the sensitivity of the situation, said the embassy is aware that increased numbers of Chinese students and academics have been unable to obtain US visas for China–US student-exchange programmes, conferences and meetings over the past 12 months. The official says the reason isn’t clear.

A press officer at the state department said that it evaluates visa applications in accordance with US laws, and referred Nature to its website for statistics on embassy waiting times.

Are the tensions affecting science in China?

It’s hard to tell, because many Chinese scientists don’t want to speak publicly about the situation. But Jay Siegel, dean of the School of Pharmacy at Tianjin University, says the country is less reliant on collaborating with the United States to improve and internationalize its research than it was a decade or two ago. China has its own resources, including plentiful research facilities, a large workforce and strong funding sources, he says.

Students and investors are already looking to the European Union as a more attractive place for career opportunities or business development, because it is seen as more open and accepting of Chinese collaborations than the United States, says Siegel. If visa problems continue, Chinese researchers will simply try to strengthen their relationships with researchers in Europe. “They’ll go where they’re welcome,” he says.

What’s happening with US–China collaborations?

Following in the footsteps of the NIH, many US universities are updating their policies on financial disclosures and intellectual property, to ensure that collaborations with foreign entities are properly reported, or they are reminding faculty members about existing policies.

Institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Stanford University in California, the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, have gone a step further and restricted collaborations with the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. The company is a major funder of research around the world, but US government officials, along with some in other countries, have called it a national-security threat because it could be exploited by the Chinese government. Huawei denies that it is a security threat.

At Purdue, the impacts of the restrictions have been minimal, says Suresh Garimella, the university’s executive vice-president for research and partnerships. Garimella heads the Cooling Technology Research Center, a research consortium that included Huawei. Following the university’s decision, Garimella had to tell the company it could no longer participate in the partnership. “Everyone is kind of confronting the issue, and figuring out what to do,” he says.

Many Chinese American scientists are worried that the political rhetoric is unfairly targeting them. Three biomedical societies that represent Chinese American researchers sent a letter to Science in March, saying that scientists of Chinese descent working in the United States are in danger of being singled out for “scape-goating, stereotyping, and racial profiling”.

How are other universities reacting to the tensions?

Many universities are keeping quiet as they work out how to address the issue of foreign influence in academia, says Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington DC.

Smith says that his organization has been meeting with officials at federal agencies, including the FBI, the CIA and the departments of energy and defence, to discuss the problem. Universities need to be more vigilant against foreign interference in research, Smith says, but also to balance that with the need for academic openness and international collaboration.

“What is right and wrong is a bit murky,” says Smith. “But this is the topic of concern that keeps senior research administrators on our campuses awake at night right now.”

Nature 568, 443-444 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01270-y

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 23 April 2019: This story has been updated to include revelations about letters the NIH sent to researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; the centre’s response; and reporting by Science and the Houston Chronicle on letters sent to other institutes.

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