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‘Psychological fear’: MIT scientists of Chinese origin protest toxic US climate

Researchers describe how a government crackdown on foreign influence is affecting them following a statement of support from their university.

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MIT researchers and students hold signs saying “We are all Chinese scientists”

Shuguang Zhang (far right), a biochemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been vocal about concerns for scientists of Chinese descent.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Immunologist Jianzhu Chen was heading home from Singapore in May, when a US customs agent pulled him aside and asked: do you work for a foreign government?

Chen is a Chinese-born US citizen who has worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge for 25 years. He regularly flies back and forth to Asia and had never encountered this line of questioning before. “It was quite intrusive,” he says. “Anyone of Chinese descent becomes a suspect.”

Chen’s experience comes amid mounting claims that a government crackdown on foreign influence is unfairly targeting scientists of Chinese origin working on US campuses. In response, MIT, one of the world’s top-ranked universities, has joined other prominent universities in voicing support for their ethnic Chinese scholars.

“[W]e must take great care not to create a toxic atmosphere of unfounded suspicion and fear,” reads an open letter published on 25 June by MIT President Rafael Reif. “Yet faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge — because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.”

Government agencies dispute the charge that they are singling out ethnically Chinese scientists, and emphasize the need to contain undue foreign influence at universities while preserving scientific integrity and international collaboration.

But MIT scientists who spoke to Nature described a variety of discomfiting experiences with government officials in recent months — and said they were changing their behaviour in response to the climate on campus and around the country.

“The current atmosphere creates a lot of psychological fear,” says MIT mechanical engineer Gang Chen, who earlier this year cut short a planned sabbatical at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen to avoid any perception that he might be leaking intellectual property or scientific knowhow to Chinese colleagues.

Increasing pressure

The changing climate is a result of increasing pressure on research institutes from various branches of the US government, including the FBI and science agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to confront the potential for foreign states to steal valuable intellectual property.

Scientists of Chinese background — including US citizens and permanent residents — are often the focus of government inquiry, prompting accusations that such researchers are being targeted because of their ethnicity.

“There’s suspicion related to any activities in terms of Chinese ties,” says MIT physicist Nicholas Fang. “That’s racial profiling. That’s a real problem.”

For example, US research institutes have moved to dismiss at least five ethnically Chinese researchers funded by the NIH after receiving notifications from the agency as part of a sweeping initiative that began last August. The allegations include not reporting Chinese funding and researchers violating confidentiality rules associated with government-supported projects. At least two of the researchers have publicly disputed the claims.

The NIH forcefully disputes that racial bias has contributed to its investigations. “Our focus is not on specific people, it’s on specific types of behaviour,” says NIH deputy director for extramural research Michael Lauer, in particular a failure to disclose funding from, or employment agreements with, foreign institutions.

“None of this has anything to do with racial profiling,” he says. “These are all very specific types of behaviours that get to the heart of NIH’s ability to make fair and unbiased funding decisions.”

Lauer also told Nature that universities have quietly fired more scientists as a result of the NIH crackdown. He confirmed that the NIH has sent more than 100 letters to 61 research institutions since August about alleged failures to disclose foreign funding, and that in most, but not all, of the cases, the researchers concerned are ethnically Chinese.

An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on the MIT letter, noting only that the agency cannot initiate an investigation solely on the basis of an individual’s race, ethnicity or national origin.

Forceful questioning

The letter reflects growing unease at MIT. Scientists of Chinese descent at the university described to Nature unusually long processing delays on visa applications; forceful questioning from customs agents when entering the United States; and surprise visits from law-enforcement officials on campus.

“It was scary,” says one former MIT engineering postdoc, now at Peking University in Beijing, who says he was twice interviewed last year by federal agents and asked not to be named in this article. He thinks this was, in part, because of his involvement in China’s recruitment programme for overseas researchers, the Thousand Talents Plan. “I feel like I was unfairly targeted just because I’m Chinese. It’s not necessary and it’s not right.”

FBI officials have publicly described Thousand Talents as a way to steal proprietary information and know-how from abroad. And last month, the Department of Energy (DOE) banned staff from participating in talent-recruitment programmes run by China, North Korea, Russia and Iran. “It’s the programmes that we’re targeting, not the people or their nationality,” says DOE spokesperson Kelly Love.

Concerned scientists

The MIT open letter follows similar statements from at least ten other institutions, including Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Stanford University in California. Several groups of Chinese American scientists have also raised the alarm, as has the Committee of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit organization based in New York City.

Protein biochemist Shuguang Zhang from the MIT Media Lab, who raised concerns with Reif before the MIT head published the open letter, now wants more institutions to speak up. Over the past week, he has reached out to administrators at more than a dozen universities and societies, in the United States and around the world, in the hope of creating a unified stand against what he says amounts to prejudicial treatment of Chinese scientists.

In the meantime, Zhang — a naturalized US citizen who has worked at MIT for more than 30 years — says he is forgoing US government grants altogether. “I will get funding from other sources,” he says, such as private companies. Other scientists with Chinese pedigrees, he fears, might just leave the country altogether.

Nature 571, 157 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02063-z

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