The MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has investigated ethnically Chinese faculty members.Credit: Aurora Fierro/Cover/Getty

A US government crackdown on foreign influence on research is taking a toll on Chinese American researchers and US academia at large, according to academics and legal experts.

Government-instigated investigations that have led US research institutions to seek the dismissal of at least five ethnically Chinese scientists are fuelling fears that researchers of Chinese descent are being unfairly targeted, although the government agency involved denies this, as does one of the research institutions.

And the broader crackdown, which includes reduced access to visas and tougher export controls, leaves research institutions struggling to balance legitimate government concerns with academic openness, according to associations that represent academics. Some fear the rising tensions could lead to an exodus of researchers with Chinese backgrounds from US institutions.

“If this continues, we’re going to see changes in the populations that we have on our campuses,” says Wayne Mowery, an export-compliance officer at Pennsylvania State University in State College and chair of the Association of University Export Control Officers.

NIH letters

Simmering political tensions between the United States and China, including an escalating trade war, are increasingly affecting research. Last August, the director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Francis Collins sent a letter to more than 10,000 US institutions raising concerns about “some foreign entities” interfering in the funding, research and peer review of NIH-supported projects. In April this year, Collins said that investigations into researchers at dozens of institutions had uncovered breaches of the agency’s rules.

A week later, it emerged that, after receiving letters from the NIH, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston had moved to dismiss three researchers, all ethnically Chinese, two of whom chose to resign instead.

The scientists were accused of breaching confidentiality, including by sharing grant proposals that they were reviewing, and by failing to disclose foreign funding and affiliations at institutions abroad, according to redacted versions of the letters from the NIH to MD Anderson, and the centre’s own investigations.

Then, last month, Emory University in Atlanta announced that it had fired two faculty members after investigations prompted by the NIH. Emory alleges that the researchers, whom it did not identify, had failed to properly report foreign funding and “the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China”. Since then, neuroscientist Li Xiao-Jiang has identified himself and Li Shihua, his laboratory co-leader and wife — who are both Chinese Americans — as the dismissed scientists and disputed the charges against them. He says he had always informed the university of his work in China.

Racial dragnet?

Because the investigations do not focus on espionage involving the Chinese government, some fear that the crackdown might be creating a dragnet most likely to snag people of Chinese descent. They are concerned that this could amount to racial profiling, the practice of targeting people because of their racial or ethnic background. US federal law prohibits unequal treatment on the basis of race.

“We don’t have enough information to make the call on whether there is racial profiling going on or not, but there is concern,” says Steven Pei, a physicist at the University of Houston and former chair of the advocacy group United Chinese Americans in Washington DC.

One scientist at MD Anderson, who was born in China and is now a US citizen, says: “I definitely feel the pressure of the racial profiling.” The scientist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, adds: “I’ve got a few other offers, and will very likely leave very soon.”

Both MD Anderson and the NIH are adamant that the crackdown does not amount to racial profiling. MD Anderson president Peter Pisters points out that only a tiny proportion of his centre’s staff has been investigated. “This is fundamentally about ethics and integrity,” he says. “It’s not about ethnicity.” Pisters has agreed to meet with Pei and the United Chinese Americans this month.

And although the NIH acknowledges that China has been a major focus of its investigations, it says that it has not singled out ethnically Chinese researchers, and has looked into potential violations involving researchers who are not ethnically Chinese.

“We’re focusing on objective behaviours,” Michael Lauer, a deputy director at the agency, told Nature. “Not all of them involve China, and not all of the scientists whom we have discovered problems with are ethnically Chinese.”

In a statement provided to Nature, Emory University did not comment directly on whether its actions amount to racial profiling, but said it remains committed “to our vital collaborations with researchers from around the world” and “values the international diversity of its students, faculty, and staff, including those from China”.

Thousand talents

The US government crackdown on researchers goes beyond the NIH. In a memo released in January, the Department of Energy said that it would no longer allow its employees and grant recipients to participate in talent-recruitment programmes run by “sensitive” countries, a ban widely assumed to apply to the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Plan — a prestigious scheme to bring leading academics back to China and promote domestic research. In June 2018, the US state department limited visas for Chinese graduate students in robotics, aviation and high-tech manufacturing to one year, rather than five. And last August, Congress enacted legislation requiring the Department of Defense to evaluate foreign influence in academic programmes. The National Science Foundation says it is also evaluating and clarifying its policies.

Such changes are creating a new landscape for ethnically Chinese researchers in the United States, says Frank Wu, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, and a member of the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans that works to advance US–China relations. Whether the US government’s focus on foreign influence in academia is right or wrong, he says, researchers need to understand that behaviours that were once considered OK, or even encouraged — such as participating in the Thousand Talents programme — are now questioned or banned.

Frank H. Wu speaking at a Committee of 100 summit

Frank Wu, a member of the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans, says researchers need to understand that norms are changing.Credit: Committee of 100

Some confusion is natural, he says, but the United States should be engaging with Chinese Americans, not alienating them. “There are wrongdoers, and we should go after them,” he says. “But that can be done without going after everyone with a similar ethnic background.”

Wu and others in the Committee of 100 are working to advise scientists on how to respond. On 20 May, the committee co-hosted a seminar on the rising US–China tensions with the Asia Society of Northern California. The meeting, in San Francisco, focused in part on the recent changes.

But the tensions have been building for years. On 7 April, the Committee of 100 issued a statement condemning what it described as racial profiling of Chinese Americans, including “overzealous criminal prosecutions” of scientists such as Xiaoxing Xi, a physicist at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, whom the FBI arrested and accused of espionage in May 2015, only to drop the charges a few months later.

Xi is suing the federal government, alleging that he was targeted because of his ethnicity. “It changed the way I view my world,” he told Nature. “It made me understand what they are capable of doing.”

Balancing act

The increasing tensions also pose a conundrum for research institutions, which must strike a delicate balance between addressing legitimate national-security concerns and maintaining academic openness, says Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington DC. Neither the institutions nor the organizations that fund them are necessarily equipped for this. “We are not police, nor should the federal funding agencies be the police,” says Smith.

Universities must do what they can to ensure the integrity of federally funded research, he says, but he also understands the worries about profiling. US intelligence agencies cite the threat of espionage from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, he says, “but let’s face it, the concerns are being driven by China”.

Smith hopes that a bill introduced in the House of Representatives on 30 May will help. The bill, whose bipartisan supporters include the chair of the House's science panel, proposes an interagency working group to protect federally funded research from foreign interference, while accounting for the open exchange of ideas and collaboration needed for scientific progress.

Mowery says that the US government needs to spell out what is expected of academic institutions when it comes to foreign interference. For instance, the government brought criminal charges against the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in January, and more recently took steps that could result in explicit controls on selling technology to the company. But it has yet to define what this means for universities that have collaborations with the company. Huawei has denied that it poses a security risk.

Too often, Mowery and others say, scientists and university administrators are operating under a haze of unclear and often shifting rules and expectations. And the Chinese American community’s concerns about profiling are growing, he says. “We’re aware of their concerns, and we’re also aware of the impact that this could have on our institutions.”